Last week the Government of Sierra Leone passed the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE), described as a “ground-breaking” piece of legislation that puts Sierra Leone at the forefront of women’s rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Here, Ash Phillips, our Africa Programme Manager, who works alongside our partners to oversee projects in Sierra Leone, will unpack the act and discuss what its adoption means in practice.
The GEWE act is a wide-ranging policy hoping to serve as a “…roadmap for achieving equal treatment of men and women in Sierra Leone…whilst achieving livelihood and social protection for all.” Within the policy thirteen specific objectives have been set out, however, some have garnered more attention than others.
30% of public and private jobs must now be reserved for women, 30% of candidates put forward for electoral positions by all parties must be female, at least 14-weeks maternity leave must be guaranteed, and equal access to bank credit and training opportunities must be ensured. The language here is pointedly clear, these policies are non-negotiable, and the Government expects them to be followed. However, as with any law the proof will be in the general public’s acceptance and the enforcement of the law by the authorities. On the last point, the new GEWE act does have some teeth, businesses can be fined up to £2,000 for not applying the legal ratios and opening access to the female workforce.
This legal and social development in Sierra Leone is timely. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the USA, countless acts of sexual violence within the Metropolitan Police Service in the UK, and the worrying clampdown of women’s freedom in Afghanistan – supposedly “more developed” countries have been stripping away women’s rights and safety at a canter, so, can Sierra Leone lead the way to a more inclusive and balanced society?
Sierra Leone is a nation of eight million people, with women making up over 50% of the population – to build the economy without engaging four million people is a non-starter. With a median age of 19 years the potential workforce is huge, and the hope is this piece of legislation can propel the economy forward for generations to come whilst tackling some deeply entrenched social barriers. As with most significant changes however, this begins with…education.
With that in mind, potentially the most significant impact of GEWE is on female access to training opportunities and destigmatising female owned businesses and employment. Women and girls have had widely reduced access to training and work in more “traditional” trades, which is not something we are unfamiliar with in the UK, with “tradesMEN” still being very much the norm.
The desire for vocational skills training among the young population of Sierra Leone is higher than ever but women are still broadly speaking restricted to tailoring or catering qualifications. Whilst there are notable exceptions to this pattern, women need to have the freedom and encouragement to challenge that stigma. To fight poverty and grow an economy the workforce needs to be skilled and appropriately educated, as the saying goes “…to educate girls is to reduce poverty.”
Against this backdrop Tools for Self Reliance are increasing our offer to young women in Sierra Leone. Through developing training syllabi in non-gendered trades, providing access to business start-up grants, and breaking barriers to project inclusion, female trainees will be guided along realistic pathways to sustained livelihood development.
Economic empowerment is unambiguously linked to other social developments, evidence shows women and girls bear the brunt of poverty and are more likely to experience multi-dimensional poverty. According to UNAIDS, cases of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting and Gender Based Violence rise when poverty levels do, women experience less agency in reproductive health decision making and family planning, with unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases perpetuating the poverty cycle.
We welcome this law which put’s women’s rights at the forefront of the conversation in Sierra Leone. Now is the time to push forward with our work, hopefully side-by-side with this new law and it’s enforcement.
Editor: Ash Phillips, Africa Programme Manager
Tools for Self Reliance
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