By Alfred Koroma
President Julius Maada Bio has on Thursday 19 January signed the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act into law, at a cheerful ceremony in the new Foreign Service Academy Hall.
The path-breaking law provides for several reforms to enhance women’s rights and representation in public service. These include, providing women 30% quota for elective and appointive public officer positions, equal entitlement to employees training and improvement of their access to finance. The law also provides for the establishment of Gender Units within MDAs and extends maternal leave from 12 weeks to 14 weeks.
Delivering keynote address at the event, President Bio said the Act will address the gender imbalances in the country comprehensively and the break barriers to parliamentary representation, looking forward to a more vibrant and diverse Parliament with greater numbers of women and women’s voices.
He promised more public job opportunities for women and emphasized his government’s eagerness to work with the private sector to create more jobs for them and harness business cultures that promotes diversity and inclusion.
“This is just a quota, he said, if we have more qualified women, we should not stop at the 30 percent. The time for closing the gender gap in Sierra Leone is now.”
The President urged stakeholders to work on reducing and eliminating all forms of violence against women in their communities, saying women who wish to serve in public offices should be encouraged and not undermined, belittled and intimidated.
“There is no path to a democratic, free, stable, and prosperous society that does not include women’s central and uninhabited participation,” he stated, adding: “Women can live their full potential when they live safe, fulfilled, productive lives.”
Significant progress to enact the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill came when the President publicly declared his support for the Bill, Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Hon. Manty Tarawalli said, thanking the President for providing the political will.
She described the President’s assent on the new law as a new down and an indelible history for women and girls in Sierra Leone.
Although the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act is seen as a stepping stone in the fight against gender imbalances in Sierra Leone, the country is still below the target of the SDG of achieving gender equality by 2030.
Presently, women account for 52 percent of the total population in the country but less than 20 percent of them hold elected positions. Their participation and representation in elective and appointment positions has been very low compared to their male counterparts.
Referencing data from the latest Gender snapshot in her statement, representative from the UN Women, Setcheme Mongbo said women hold only about 14 percent of the ministerial positions, 14 percent Parliamentarian seats and 19 percent of local government representations in Sierra Leone.
However, she said the provisions in the new law with the 30 percent quota has shortened the road ahead of Sierra Leone’s journey to achieving the SDG goal of gender equality and singled out the country within all the English Speaking Countries of West Africa which presently have no quotas.
The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act is evidence of the President’s commitment to gender equality, Irish Ambassador, Claire Buckley says. But she cautions that 30 percent quota should not be seen as a limit, but one that can be increased in every election. She assured her country’s commitment to continue working with the President in empowering women and girls.
A bevy of women activists from various feminist organizations across the country witnessed the Presidential assent on the Act and praised the President for making their long sought dream, a reality.
“You are a special President in our heart, Augusta James-Tiema from the All Political Parties Women’s Association, hailed the president, describing his assent as symbolic and immediately called on political parties to review their constitutions in line with new Gender Act.
Gertrude Karimu, Southern Women Network thanked the President for fulfilling his commitment, saying the legacy will live on and generations will remember him as a true gender champion.