A new type of happiness – women in Sierra Leone celebrate their rights finally being protected

Francis Kokutse writes from Freetown on reactions to the country’s new gender law that delivers on two decades of promises to empower Sierra Leonean women

Sunday 29 January 2023 18:14 GMT

It is nearly twenty years ago that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after Sierra Leone’s civil war delivered its findings.

In it, one of the key recommendations was that the political and economic power of women be increased so that they became empowered citizens of the country.

This month those recommendations presented back in 2004 finally got enacted in law as President Julius Maada Bio achieved what his predecessors had failed to do and signed legislation for the improvement of women’s rights in the country.

Under the new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, women benefit from ringfenced senior positions in the workplace, at least 14-weeks of maternity leave, equal access to bank credit and training opportunities.Perhaps most importantly, it also rules that 30 per cent of all public and private jobs – including the number of MPs of parliament – must in future be reserved for women.

Signing the legislation, President Julius Maada Bio made an apology to the country’s women for their poor treatment in the past.

“For so long we haven’t been fair to you,” he said, telling them that he hoped this new law would now enable them to “get quality education, work hard and aspire beyond their wildest imagination to be the best at anything they do.”

He pledged the law would create a country with “at least 30 per cent representation in cabinet, at least 30 per cent representation in parliament, at least 30 per cent of all appointments as Ambassadors or High Commissioners, at least 30 per cent of all positions in local councils, at least 30 per cent of all jobs in the civil service, and at least 30 per cent of all jobs in private institutions with 25 and more employees.”

On the streets of the Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown it was a moment that many women had questioned would ever come.

As I talked with them it was clear that there was excitement at the new opportunities the law raised, but also wondered about how it would in practice impact on their own lives.For Mariamma Kalla, a 45-year-old small trader on the Lumley Road, the legislative change meant little to her but it did mean opportunity for her children. “This law has come late for me,” she said. “It would have made my parents ensure that I went to school. It would have changed a lot of things in my life. I am however happy that my two daughters will not be left out in the change that is sweeping through the country on improving the lives of women.”

Nadia Kamara, who set up her own business – the Beauty Bar – in Freetown with three friends, said what they liked about the act is the financial inclusion that it offers with the stipulation that financial institutions must now actively assist women. This meant the opportunity to expand her business. “We have plans to replicate what we have started in Freetown and if possible, outside Sierra Leone,” she told me.

Joana Arthur, a 25-year-old administrative assistant, said: “I saw women being involved in politics in Ghana during a visit and dreamt of getting involved in my country, but l saw the glass ceiling in Sierra Leone. Now, l can say we have the opportunity to break it.”

The new legislation in itself will not make existing problems go away overnight. Prior to the law, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency had warned that “progress has been made in expanding opportunities for women and girls” but “gender inequality and denial of women’s rights are still prevalent at all levels in Sierra Leonean society”.

The country Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Manty Tarawalli, admits there is still much to do but emphasised that women have been “crying” out “for years” for the new legislation to protect their right to finally be passed.Under it there are harsh repercussions for employers who do not stick to the new gender ratios, including fines of £2,000 and even potential prison time for institutions like banks that do not give women fair access to financial support. Ms Tarawalli intends that this will make it easier for women to start their own businesses.

She said the previous administrations had failed to bring in the legislation due to the lack previously of the necessary political will to do so, explaining “the climate wasn’t right in terms of women’s readiness and men being accommodating for this sort of growth until now.”

The new law would benefit all people in the country, whatever their gender, she stressed. Sierra Leone could not progress to becoming a middle-income country, Ms Tarawalli said, “when 52 per cent of the country’s population who are women are outside the economy and leadership position”.

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