‘A good year for women in Sierra Leone’

Gender activist, Naasu Fofonah in conversation

Naasu Fofonah is an author, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist with speciality in gender equality and women’s empowerment. She served as the special Adviser on Gender to the former president of Sierra Leone where she made giant strides in advocating gender equality.

Sierra Leone has recently enacted the landmark Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE) which enshrines improvements to women’s access to finance, employment opportunities, equal pay, maternity leave, and–critically–political representation.

As part of The Breaker’s coverage on International Women’s Day, Naasu Fofanah spoke to Tolulope Aina about gender equality in Sierra Leone. Excerpts from the interview:

Sierra Leone is currently ranked 181 out of 191 in the World gender equality index. What are the underlying issues keeping Sierra Leone in this position? 

Patriarchy is key, traditional beliefs, practices and also the lack of the implementation of key policies and laws in our country. We have very fine laws. There is the legal framework which we can actually access when we want to, but the commitment to implement what we write is not there. 

If you’re going to put laws in place, you have to make sure that those laws have the structures and the personnel to implement and also, there should be specific funding to ensure that the structures that you create to implement these laws are effective. So we are lacking those!

Author, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist Naasu Fofonah. Photo: Naaasu Fofonah

When it comes to implementation, we are really far behind. That’s why I believe that despite laws on sexual violence and sexual offences we need to act now. We have all of these, but the fruit of the pudding is in implementation and that’s where we’re failing. So if we are able to get that right, I think we would definitely jump up the rankings. We will have access, but all of those things are very difficult. Whether it’s access to finance or to education, women are still being marginalised despite some of these policies that we’ve had.  So I think the implementation is the key bottleneck. Also, there’s still a lot of work in terms of awareness. I believe we’re doing great, but we can shout all we want on issues. I know that the challenges exceed what we probably put out there. 

Do you think the implementation issues will be applicable to the GEWE act? 

Women have fought very hard to have this law, the GEWE act. They have fought for it and accountability is going to be the key. So I believe it is on us, women in particular, to ensure that we also follow with our advocacy. 

Patriarchy does not go away just because there is a law

Now we have a law, there is no excuse not to have women in positions of trust. The cliche of ‘where are the women? We don’t have women!’ is no longer applicable because we do have women who can fill leadership positions at all levels. So now we have to redouble our efforts, because if we have to allow the men to call us to the table, we are not going to get there. 

This law gives us permission to make our own table and call those whom we need at that table as well, because we have to look at the possibilities. Patriarchy does not go away just because there is a law, so we have to look at those gaps. You have to implore subtle and blatant advocacy, but also hold the government accountable to invest in the implementation of this law.

We have to now double our efforts to make sure that what we’ve invested so far does not go in vain. Maybe we didn’t have everything that we wanted in the law, but it’s a good start and to move on the process. So I am confident that we are not going to leave this in the hands of just the government. 

It is our collective responsibility, men, women, boys and girls, to make sure that the law takes effect and that it’s implemented. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is no longer a taboo, it is something that people are now comfortable talking about. So, we will continue to progress. We need to persuade those who don’t believe with convincing partnership, commitment from government and commitment from our development partners, civil societies and our traditional institutions and of course also the women. 

We cannot just sit and say we have a law now we can relax. The work begins now to make sure that we actualise what we’ve asked for. 

What do you think would be the greatest barrier in implementing the GEWE for rural women in Sierra Leone? 

Financing any law implementation is important. So is ensuring that the structures that you’ve put in place are functional. For example, in certain parts of our country women are not allowed to be paramount chiefs. We have all of these issues which have to do with our local governance structure.  We have a central government, we have local governments and how we bring all of these people on board is going to take time. 

Women in Sierra Leone. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash.com

It is not going to be automatic because most of our women who live in the rural areas respect their men. They respect the traditional institutions. So even if we do everything here at the central government, if the local government doesn’t educate and promote what we are fighting for at the central level, we will still not be there.

In the city centre we are creating organisations that will go deeper than where we have gone before. Not just the ones that the government is going to create, but we ourselves have to endeavour to do more. They can be even more powerful than the women in the city. I have witnessed them taking up issues, which has kept the central government steady.

I believe that we first and foremost need to let them understand what this law is all about and what they can do to promote the implementation. From the bottom level upwards. 

You have done a lot of work in terms of gender based violence in Sierra Leone. How do you think the GEWE will improve the safety of women?

Well, violence against women and girls rights across the spectrum is something that we have been working on. We were not waiting for the GEWE law. 

For example, we’ve got the Sexual Offences Act, which is a specific act to protect women from all forms of sexual violence and gender based violence. The three gender acts which we are also speaking about eliminates violence against women and girls, so it has been there. It’s continuous. The Bill has just given us an additional legal tool to hold the government accountable. And in implementing what it has set out to do. It’s a continuous process! We’ve not been waiting for the law, we’ve been waiting for the law when it comes to women’s political rights to make sure that women are given the access and opportunity to participate. 

So fighting for equity in the political space has been difficult. This law answers some of that and places those questions. So we’re going to continue pushing, but in terms of other areas like GBV issues and sexual violence in particular. We have been making progress, but I will come back to the implementation. 

When you see women and girls being raped and you go through the entire process of going to the family support unit, which is the first government institutions that you will face as a victim, you go there and they are the least funded departments within the Sierra Leone police. Here you start to see the lacuna in commitments to fighting or implementing these laws.

If you’re going to fight sexual and gender based violence and the institution that deals with this is not equipped, then what sense does the law make? Because we don’t have forensic machines to sometimes fact check what has happened, to do forensic tests in the cases of rape, we have women who have been raped and killed and they are in their graves today. No justice. Also you come to the judiciary where the cases will take sometimes forever. 

We have the fast track court now and for sexual violence cases, but the judges are now overwhelmed and we just don’t have enough resources. So we’re going to be going gradually, ensuring that we hold the whole government accountable and push and support where we can. 

A female farmer in Sierra Leone. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash.com

To make sure that women’s peace and security is protected and women’s rights are upheld, we have a lot of stumbling blocks, including people who are holding key positions in promoting women’s rights, who sometimes compromise cases or investigations that will lead to perpetrators going scot free. 

What would you describe as the major challenges faced when bringing this act into law? 

Well, the usual challenge that we face with anything that has to do with women’s rights is patriarchy. There are people, or men, who just don’t believe in the empowerment of women. Some of those men are holding power, so they will tell you blatantly. No. Let the women wait.

Lots of people were resistant, they were resistant because they were fearful, especially some of the parliamentary. Fearing that they will not be coming back into Parliament, that they might not be elected again. So that fear and the almighty patriarchy was standing in the way. 

The commitment was also not there from the President, and it took a lot of convincing for him and parliamentarians. But once we were able to overcome that, they wanted to ask questions, they wanted to know what had been inclusive in our advocacy. They did not want us to have this bill just for the women who are educated. They wanted the bill to be something for women in the rural areas. So they came back with their questions. We went back and forth, back and forth, but in the end we were all together. This is a bipartisan bill that went through parliament, and all the political parties in parliament gave it their approval. 

We have a starting point. We have gender equality and women’s empowerment, so we’ve forgotten now about these challenges. But we are trying to convince the government which is heading into elections soon, so we’re going to see the test of this act. We’re going to see if they appoint more women ministers and ambassadors.

I think this year is a good year for women and we’re going to see lip service versus commitment. 

How has the women in Sierra Leone reacted to the signing of GEWE?

We are happy. We have been waiting for this day. We have a bill and we can go back and do amendments later. But what is important is, we have an act. So women are happy with what we have, this instrument that we use as reference to increase women’s political participation and the opportunities for women.

We want to ensure that every ministry department and agency has a gender desk to support the particular institution on gender issues. We have so many things that we are looking forward to. But like I said, while we are happy, we are also cautious about implementation. 

We are still testing the first phase of implementation which is through women’s political participation, to see how many women they put in their party list, which positions will be given to these women? That’s what we’re analyzing right now!

It’s a great time for the women of Sierra Leone in both major political parties, the ruling party and the main opposition party. We want to see whether they really mean what they say. And it is no longer the time when you have manifestos, these manifestos will now have to speak to gender equality and women’s empowerment. We are happy and cautiously optimistic! 

Related Posts