Sierra Leone’s Gewe Act against gender based discrimination
At the end of January, women in Sierra Leone and all over Africa celebrated another legislative attempt to reverse the long-standing institutionalised injustices against women. The new law, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment’s Act (Gewe Act), passed by President Julius Maada Bio, makes provision for a minimum of 30% quota of elective and appointive public officer positions to women. Thus, the law will not only cause change to the 146 seats of parliament but also to the Civil Service.
About Sierra Leone
Women constitute up to 52% of the total population in Sierra Leone. However, their representation in Government has maintained an all-time low. The current number of women MPs in the Sierra Leonean parliament accounts for 12,3% of parliamentary seats and only 4 of the 32 cabinet positions.
The 30% quota will thus be a game changer in Sierra Leone’s upcoming presidential, parliamentary, mayoral and local council elections later in June this year.
Besides, women have long suffered from discrimination in places of work accounting for several unjustified dismissals of women from their jobs. According to a report from the Human Rights Watch, it is commonplace to fire women from work when they get pregnant.
The high rates of sexual violence against girls and women has also caused great alarm. Many of these cases, however, have been described as a continued legacy of the war crimes of the 1991-2002 Civil War. In 2018, 19,8% of women aged between 15-49 years old reported that they had been subject to physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner in the previous 12 months. This was in addition to the barriers faced in respect to their sexual and reproductive health rights.
A report by Un Women asserts that 29,6% of women aged 20-24 years old were married or in a union before attaining the majority age. The adolescent birth rate has persisted much as it dropped from the previous 139,4 per 1.000 in 2015.
The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (Gewe).
According to the provisions of the Gewe Act, women will, among other things, benefit from a maternity leave of 14 weeks. They will have access to bank credit and training opportunities at work. They will also benefit from ring-fenced senior positions in the workplace.
Several activists believe that the law is sending a message to the girls and women in Sierra Leone, that is: there are opportunities for them in their country for employment, business and for them to contribute to the economy. This explains the increased prospects of women in business and entrepreneurial ventures due to the ease with which the legislative reforms come.
The new law does not come without repercussions. Failure to abide by the law will lead to heavy fines of 2,000 pounds or approximately 2,253 euro. This is in addition to potential prison time for institutions, like banks, that do not give women fair access to financial support.
Approaches to women empowerment all over Africa
The great majority of African Countries have demonstrated their commitment towards facilitating women’s emancipation and promoting gender equality on the continent. This has mainly been through the ratification of international instruments, like the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) and the African Union’s protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.
These kind of instruments not only guarantee the rights of women but also give the Government a pro-active role by making accountable to the international commissions on any violations of women’s rights.
As of December 2020, only 41,7% of the indicators that are needed in order to monitor the SDGs, from a gender perspective, were available. The last few decades have been characterised by an increase in women employment and active labour force. Despite this increase, reports indicate that “the majority of women work in insecure, poorly paid jobs, with few opportunities for advancement.”
The role of International Agencies
The Un, through collaboration with several agencies, has established institutions to support grassroots leadership development for women in Africa. This is to enable them take up spaces in the democratised Governments.
These efforts have been tailored to include gender-focused national planning and budgeting, creating more opportunities for women’s participation in peace processes, and partnerships with national banks to expand access to finance and support for women as leaders in cross-border trade.
Constitutional and legislated quotas elsewhere in Africa
Data obtained from the Quota Project depicts that several Countries, including Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda, have constitutional quotas for national parliaments. The laws in these Countries call for 30 % quotas for women in parliaments. For instance, in Burundi, Article 164 and Article 129 of the Constitution provide for quotas for women in Parliament and Government. If the quota is not met, the Constitution requires women to be included to the parliament through cooptation (a process specified in the Electoral Code of Burundi).
The status of women all over the continent has progressively improved over the years. This is not to imply, however, that we cannot do more. With the recognition that comes with laws like the Gewe Act, it is only appropriate that activists and stakeholders all over the continent utilise the law to attain more reforms for women.