By Francis Kokutse
FREETOWN, Feb 14 2023 (IPS)
Sierra Leone’s new gender equality law will benefit women with political aspirations – as well as stimulate development, say analysts.
The country’s President, Julius Maada Bio, signed the new Gender Equality and Women Empowerment into law in January 2023. It has shaken the foundations of previously held ideologies that restricted females’ involvement in various aspects of the country’s life.
Reacting to the enactment of the law, Janet Bangoura, a 35-year-old administrative worker in the capital, Freetown, said: “A year ago, I only nursed the dream of ever becoming a politician because the playing field has never been equal for women. This has changed with the signing of the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (GEWE Act 2022), which guarantees at least 30 percent of female participation in Parliament and at least 30 percent of all diplomatic appointments to be filled by women.”
In addition, the law stipulates that not less than 30 percent of all positions in Local Councils should be reserved for women, same with 30 percent of all jobs in the civil service and at least 30 percent of jobs in private institutions with 25 and more employees. It also extends maternal leave extended from 12 weeks to 14 weeks.
Bangoura sees this new law as “shaking the status quo because it has brought a change that women of my generation had not expected. Now, we do not have any excuse but to seek our dreams in the political field. I know things will not immediately change, but the foundation has been laid for those of us who want to break the political glass ceiling.”
It is not only the women who are happy that the country has achieved the “unthinkable”. With the coming into force by this law, Sierra Leoneans of all ages and sexes are glad their country has overtaken neighbouring countries in the West African region by taking the lead in giving equality to women. Though such a law has been talked about by the countries in the region, the head of the United Nations Women’s office in Sierra Leone, Setcheme Jeronime Mongbo, said the September 2022 data on women’s representation in English West Africa shows that Ghana has 14.8 percent of women in Parliament, Gambia, 11.6 percent, Liberia, 9.7 percent and Nigeria, 7,2 percent, adding that, “Sierra Leone is leading the way.”
Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Manty Tarawalli welcomed the law, which she said has been late in coming but noted that it was better late than never. She attributed the lateness in enacting the law to the lack of political will that existed before. This changed with the current President’s role, adding that, “The climate wasn’t right in terms of women’s readiness and men not being accommodating for this sort of growth until now.”
Tarawalli said Sierra Leone was a “typical” African society. “We know the way things are, and to effect that sort of change that really needs a transformation and what shakes the status quo, it required time and understanding from both men and women for the change to happen.”
She said there were initial challenges in discussing the Bill. So, they had to cross massive hurdles to be able to change “the conversation from rights-based to economic growth, and it changed organically from our consultation,” adding that “those who were opposed became willing and ready to have the conversation.”
Tarawalli was of the view that the law was about economic growth meant to move Sierra Leone to a middle-income country, adding that “this cannot happen when 52 percent of the country’s population who are women are outside the economy and leadership position.”
She identified the unwillingness of men to accommodate women when they start getting into companies and institutions as a challenge they anticipate and said there was, therefore, the need to put in place structures to create a network to support females who will be in elective positions to know there is help for them.
Tarawalli said they would educate women to understand that “economic empowerment does not mean neglecting their duties as mothers and wives at home by abandoning the care of their children and other things that are expected of them. We will also make the men understand that economic empowerment contributes to the community and contributes to Sierra Leone.”
Speaking just before he appended his signature to the Bill, Bio said the law has come to address the gender imbalances in the country comprehensively, and among other things, the provisions under the law provide for “inclusion, representation, participation, and a more responsive posture on gender.”
Bio said his signature on the law was to announce that a change has come to “our great country” and assured the country’s girls that it is a license for them to “get quality education, work hard and aspire beyond their wildest imagination to be the best at anything they do.”
“With this law, we break barriers to parliamentary representation and look forward to a more vibrant and diverse parliament with greater numbers of women and women’s voices. When compiling their proportional representation lists, I urge political parties to go beyond the legal minimum of the number of women,” he said.
Bio said his assent to the GEWE Bill has put the country on an irreversible path to achieving a more inclusive, equal, more just, more resilient, more sustainable, and more prosperous society for generations to come, adding that “with more women on the ballots, women voting, more women winning, and more women in Parliament, the country’s politics and the future of Sierra Leone will improve.”
It was his hope that the law would see more women in leadership and politics and more men supporting and acknowledging the central status of women as we work together for a vibrant, prosperous, inclusive, and democratic Sierra Leone. In addition, he believes the law ensures women equal access to credit and other financial services. To make it effective, those who discriminate on the basis of gender could face up to five years in prison as well as fines.
“Women dominate the informal economy, and data has shown that they are better at doing business, managing investments, and managing proceeds from those investments. Beyond that, as a government, we are eager to work with the private sector to create more jobs for women, harness business cultures that promote diversity and inclusion, and invest in training programmes tailored to create more job opportunities for women,” Bio said.
IPS UN Bureau Report