The Gender Empowerment Act: What does it mean for Sierra Leone
By Ishmael Sallieu Koroma*
For many years, rights groups, civil society, the media, local and international bodies called on successive governments of Sierra Leone to uphold and act upon one of the many imperative recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the provision of legislation that guarantees at least 30 % of decision making positions to women.
Women and girls suffered the most during the country’s 11 years civil war; many were sexually abused, maimed, harassed and killed by the armed factions. Yet reports and studies indicate that even after the end of the war, they remain disadvantaged. Even though 52% of the country’s population is women, they occupy less than 20 percent of elected positions in the country.
‘’Women were subjected to systematic abuse during the conflict. Violations perpetrated against women included rape, abuse, sexual slavery , trafficking enslavement, abductions, amputations, forced pregnancy, forced labour and detention ,’’ the report states.
Several studies, including the 2015 Housing and Population Survey, have indicated that more women than men are unemployed, poor, and illiterate.
Sierra Leone has recorded some of the worst forms of Gender Based Violence. Thanks to the Bio government for passing legal reforms like the amendment of the sexual offences Act of 2019, which stipulates stronger laws for any one sexually abusing women, in addition, there is a sexual offences model court specifically created by the judiciary to speedily try cases of sexual and gender based violence. Rights campaigners have welcomed this, describing it as a major step towards promoting and protecting the rights of women and girls.
In 2019, owing to the rising number of rape and sexual gender based violence cases, President Julius Maada Bio declared rape a national emergency and for the first time in Sierra Leone’s history, the nation saw a display of political will from the highest level in taking bold steps to protect women’s and girls’ rights with more awareness raising campaigns championed by First Lady Fatima Bio’s ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign.
And on 19th January this year, President Bio signed into law the Gender Empowerment Act, which aims at empowering women and girls, creating the legal platform to be in leadership roles and to be part of decision making, whilst also fulfilling one of the many imperative recommendations put forward by Bishop Humper’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
‘’The Commission recommends that political parties be required to ensure that at least 30% of their candidates for public elections are women. This includes national elections, local government and district council elections. Legislation should be enacted to make this a legal requirement. The National Electoral Commission should be required to enforce this minimum representation. Such a stipulation will require all political parties to nurture and develop meaningful participation of women. This is an imperative recommendation,’’ it reads.
President Bio, whilst signing into law the GEWE Act, said that they hoped to break barriers to parliamentary representation and he looked forward to a more vibrant and diverse parliament with greater numbers of women and women’s voices. He also urged all political parties to go beyond the legal minimum of the number of women when they compiled their proportional representation lists ahead of the elections in June this year.
“For me, women’s economic empowerment and protection are not political rhetoric. Empowering women is essential to the health and social development of families, communities and countries. Women can reach their full potential when they live safe, fulfilled, productive lives. When I became President, I proclaimed that gender is firmly on my New Direction Agenda. The future of Sierra Leone is female; we must do all it takes to facilitate the timely, full, and unconditional inclusion of women in our national life, governance, and development,” he said.
“Can we do more? Yes, and this Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, which I am signing into law today, will now address the gender imbalances in this country comprehensively. The key provisions of this law speak to the principles of inclusion, representation, participation, and a more responsive posture on gender. These include: At least 30% representation in Cabinet; At least 30% representation in Parliament; At least 30% of all appointments as Ambassadors/High Commissioners,’’ President Bio added.
The president however apologized to the women and girls in the country, stating that they haven’t been treated fairly.
‘’What a moment! I am so excited, for so long, we haven’t been fair to you,’’ Bio said.
Bio hasn’t been the only sitting president to apologize to women and girls for the suffering they have been subjected to. Former president Ernest Bai Koroma has similarly done so. Interestingly, it’s a recommendation also put forward by the TRC.
‘’The Commission recommends that the President, as the “Father of the Nation” and as the Head of State, should acknowledge the harm suffered by women and girls during the conflict in Sierra Leone and offer an unequivocal apology to them on behalf of the government and preceding governments in Sierra Leone,’’ Vol. 2, chapter 3, paragraph 317 reads.
Manager and Head of Office at the UN Women in Sierra Leone, Setcheme Jeronime Mongbo, thanked the president, saying that gender has to be a priority on the president’s agenda. She added that equality means a state of being equal in status, rights and opportunities. She further disclosed that while the world was not on track to achieving equality by 2030, she was certain that the GEWE Act 2022 was shortening the road for Sierra Leone to make huge progress because the government had set a ground-breaking precedent for women’s rights and equality in the region.
The passing of the GEWE Act in Sierra Leone means that there will be more women in political positions – in parliament and within political parties – making it compulsory for the government to develop policies and streamline women’s issues in its activities.
*This article was produced with support from the ATJLF Project on “Engaging the Media and Communities to Change the Narrative on Transitional Justice (TJ) Issues in Sierra Leone, through the MRCG.