Sierra Leone

Explainer – Celebrating victory in the ‘war’ for 30% quota for women

‘The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.’  –– Mahatma Gandhi once said. Yet, in a small West African country, the vulnerable, particularly women, have been in the throes of eleven years of a devastating rebel war, an Ebola outbreak and the twin calamitous land and mudslide. As if that is not enough, the novel Coronavirus came to snuff life out of them, leaving them with little or no hope. 

Out of the dearth of these devastations has come a renewed hope of survival for the women of Sierra Leone, a commitment to change the sad narrative of the country. Following this, Thursday, January 23, 2023, will forever remain indelible in the history of women’s empowerment in the country.

It was the day, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWEA) was passed, a law birthed to create safe spaces and opportunities for women in Sierra Leone.

The journey towards GEWEA

Despite the numerous strides by past and present administrations to change the status quo of women, according to the Global Citizen Report, 2021, Sierra Leone is considered ‘one of the worst’ places to live in as a woman. 

As a result, the passage of GEWEA did not come easy. It took years of struggle, advocacy and lobbying to pass. And while the new law is still not a completed sanctuary for the protection of women, it remains a culmination of a brick-by-brick construction of key gender parity laws in Sierra Leone that considered women as key development partners.

The “Sexual Offences (as Amended) Act of 2019 – which deals with sex-related cases; the Customary Land Right Act of 2022 – grants women the rights and access to possess or own pieces of lands on their own, something which was not evident initially; the Child Rights Act of 2007 (as amended) – which seeks to protect and prevent Sierra Leonean children, girls inclusive, from physical, emotional and economic violations. 

There could be many others, but with these, a strong foundation was laid for the GEWEA 30% quota call.

Ms Theresa Dauda is a Senior School Teacher at the Government Model Secondary School in Freetown. In an interview with DUBAWA, she summarises the torture women underwent over time. 

“For any woman who wants to succeed in Sierra Leone, [that woman] would literally have to go to hell and back,” Theresa noted, adding that she, and many other women in the country, have been to hell and back just to break the glass ceiling.

She noted that women suffer a lot, more so in the hands of some male predators (employers/bosses), who see every little opportunity as an advantage to “sleep with the woman” who is hungry to succeed and create a change in her life, family and the society at large.

Ms Dauda sees the new law as a great opportunity for the new generation of women to assert themselves towards growth and development in Sierra Leone. 

Presidential assent to the new law

The president Julius Maada Bio summed up the feeling of the country before signing the document into law; “There is no democratic, free and productive society that doesn’t need women as development partners; so, the 30 per cent quota they had always requested from successive governments should be given to them because they are equally important to the development of the country.

“And, my government is poised to fulfil another huge promise made to the women of this country. Today, I am going to assent to the Gender Equality and Empowerment Act (GEWEA) of 2022.” 

Dr Fatima Jabbie-Maada Bio, the country’s first lady, also gave a glowing tribute before the signing into law of the GEWEA Act 2022, applauding all women and other interest groups who made the law a reality. 

What does GEWEA entail?

As a preamble, the law states: “Being an Act to promote gender equality, to make provision for a minimum of 30% quota for both appointive and elective public officer positions, to make provision for equal opportunity for the training of employees, to make provision for financial institutions to prescribe procedures for the improvement of women access to finance and to provide for other related matters.” 

The law interprets “access to finance” as “women’s ability to obtain finance from financial institutions” and “appointive position” as “a position that is not obtained through elections.” Finance and political power are two key areas necessary for women’s empowerment after long years in the periphery.

The 30 per cent quota

The 30 per cent quota was a request made by the women of Sierra Leone to essentially grant them the opportunity to occupy strategic positions in political parties’ hierarchy and governance, as well as to be recognised as developmental partners in the society.

Apart from the 30% quota, the law gives new mothers a 14-week-long ‘maternity leave’ to take adequate care of their newborn babies, an opportunity they had before now.

What do MPs and ministers think about the law?

For a country where the women population constitute 52 per cent of the total number, as opposed to their male counterparts, it is obvious that the new law generated some controversy before its passage into law. 

During a debate before the law was passed, an opposition Member of Parliament, Lahai Marah, noted: “It is unfair on the part of women to be given just 30 per cent, while they represent 52 per cent of the country’s population.” Marah vehemently stressed the need for the Government to provide more opportunities for women, adding that they are equally important in nation-building; hence, they should be considered a significant whole in the country’s development.

Minister Manty Tarawalli, Sierra Leone’s present Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, commended her boss, the president, for making another history, adding that she is happy, too, to have served as the minister who led the fight from the side of the ruling government. 

She disclosed that the 30 per cent quota would heavily help women to hold strategic positions in political parties, corporate organisations, the security sector, banking, law, financial sector, skills sector (middle-man-power), and, most importantly, in the planning and executing national developmental trajectories in the country.

Key voices in praise of the 30% quota

The President of Sierra Leone’s foremost gender parity group called, “50/50 Group,” – Haja Alimatu Abdullah, described Thursday, January 23, 2023. occasion as: a “watershed moment for us women in the country”.

She said that they are committed to enlightening their fellow women about the importance of the gender law at this material moment, adding that employers should treat the new law with the utmost respect it deserves.

Minutes after the president’s assent, the Sierra Leone Association of Women in Journalism (SLAWIJ) – an all-female group of professional journalists in Sierra Leone who played a significant role in the passage of the Bill into law, took to its  Twitter Page to commend the president for listening to the cries of women by passing, as well as for appending his signature to the gender parity document in the bid to honour the 30 per cent quota call for women; a call or request, which has lingered on for a considerable amount of time. 

The women journalists’ group noted that they’re humbled and grateful to have been part of the daunting but worthwhile journey.

The current president of the group, Madam Aminata Finda Massaquoi, had earlier commenced an awareness-raising campaign and training of her fellow women, journalists inclusive, on the new gender parity Act and its significance to them as women. 

The Executive Director for the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) in Freetown – Mr Andrew Lavali, challenged women to compete with men in politics and in other significant areas in society so that the new gender law would have its fullest impact on women – both literates and illiterates.

Lavali admonished Sierra Leonean women to grab the 30 per cent quota opportunity. Noting that women should take the opportunity to engage in more women-related issues since the environment where the passing has created such discussion/engagement into the law of the gender parity Act. This is an act to which a good number of Sierra Leone’s women folks have contributed immensely for it to be actualised. 

“This is the time for women to partake in national development programs and not allow themselves to be sidelined,” he said.

Campus voices

Sarah Turay, a student at the University of Management and Modern Technology (UNIMTECH) in Freetown, disclosed to DUBAWA that the 30% call has lingered on for a considerable time now; she revealed that she was in secondary school when the campaign began but was happy to be alive to see this happen in her lifetime. 

Asked what difference the 30 per cent quota will make to her career and that of her fellow students, she told DUBAWA that the law is now a MUST and would surely improve their chances of securing jobs, adding that not just to secure employment but also to occupy prominent roles in the society. 

A final-year student at the Institute of Public Administration and Management (IPAM) in Freetown – Mariama went a notch higher with her aspirations about the new law and its potential impact on women. She explained to DUBAWA that women could even do better than most men.

Some male students DUBAWA spoke to said they hoped the new law would not create a form of “gender war” in Sierra Leone. 

Dr Fatou Taqi is a Lecturer at the country’s premier tertiary institution – Fourah Bay College (FBC), and the immediate former president of the “50/50 Group” in the country, making her submission concerning the passing into law the gender parity act noted that she is personally pleased for the passing into law. She regarded the law as Act that would not only expose women to tremendous opportunities but would equally give women the opportunity to occupy strategic roles or positions in the country. 

She expressed her utmost gratitude to the government for heeding their call for a 30 per cent quota in honour of the country’s largest population that keeps swelling yearly.

Dissenting voices    

Although some people are satisfied with the Government’s effort in passing the gender parity act into law, some persons and institutions are not happy with the process leading to the law passing of the gender act. They believe significant clauses in the then-gender bill were expunged from the final document.

One such institution is – The Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ). 

Days after the presidential assent, the group took to its Twitter page to express frustration over the final product of the GEWE Act. 

According to the legal organisation, some significant provisions are missing in the final document, adding that the Act would not be able to impact the lives of Sierra Leonean women. 

ILRAJ disclosed that some provisions enshrined in the Act are ‘misleading’ and ‘poorly drafted’, noting that the institution felt betrayed and dissatisfied with the final document.

Despite the plenty of accolades showered on the government for passing the new GEWE Act to empower Sierra Leonean women the opportunity to, among other things, hold public positions, ILRAJ believes the Act does not in itself enforce the 30 per cent quota opportunity to women in the country.

“Contrary to popular belief, the Act does not mandate 30 per cent representation in elective and appointive positions. Section 3 (1) of the Act states that ‘In making appointments to cabinet and other government positions, the President may take due consideration of the possibility of appointing women to at least 30%’.

“At least 30% of what the Act does not say,” ILRAJ indicated, stressing that the Institute is convinced recommendations presented to lawmakers were not respected nor considered in the final GEWE Act document.

Conclusion

Passing a law is one thing, and implementing the same is another. Having achieved this giant stride, it is the hope that all stakeholders will come to the table and see to the proper execution of the law for the benefit of all.

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