The Situation of Women in Sierra Leone

The spread of the Ebola virus worsened the situation for women in Sierra Leone. It was noted that women made up the majority of victims, with UN sources in Sierra Leone reporting that women represented around 59% of the deceased. Since the virus is spread through bodily fluids, women as primary caregivers in the community, and as medical professionals, were at an increased risk of contracting the virus. Although these risks were known, no special measures were taken to protect them. In the initial stages of the outbreak there had been no special outreach programs initiated, nor any communication efforts made towards the women in positions of risk to make them aware of their situation and how to avoid contracting the virus. Gender Concerns International and other NGOs have expressed their deep concern about this omission. Considering women are key agents of change and social mobilizers with a central role to play in sharing knowledge, raising awareness and enhancing care, they should’ve been a priority in measures taken.

It is also believed that the virus had serious repercussions for the social landscape as a whole, including a perceived rise in aggressive sexual violence. Sierra Leone faces a number of problems regarding various forms of sexual violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault, rape of adults and minors, marital rape, and school-related sexual abuse, as well as supposedly harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM). It became clear that reports of sexual abuse increased in 2014 after the outbreak. This could have been related to the overburdening of police forces, who were working to enforce quarantine areas and investigate suspected Ebola cases, and were therefore not able to adequately respond to crimes. The public gathering restrictions also severely hampered the continuation of programmes aimed at preventing sexual violence such as public outreach, focus groups, and group counselling. Gender Concerns International has noted with approval that after the initial shock of 2014, both the judiciary and the government have taken steps to combat the unwanted gendered side effects of the outbreak. The judiciary has taken some measures to ensure speedy trials in cases of sexual and gender-based violence. On the government’s side, it has given support to the UN Women campaigns, which specifically target women in care positions to make them aware of their risk and how to protect themselves against contracting the virus. Sierra Leone is furthermore experiencing many challenges to gender equality unrelated to the outbreak of the Ebola virus. The primary concerns are: reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity.

Sierra Leone has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world – for every 100 000 live births, 890 women die during childbirth. Various campaigns are currently fighting for the increased availability of cheap and safe abortion services. A major stumbling block for advancement, as noted by Gender Concerns International and many other NGOs, is the current anti-abortion law in place. This law criminalizes abortion in general. The law was put under review in 2015, as to determine whether in some instances abortion would be acceptable. These instances would include cases of rape, incest, if the pregnancy poses a severe health risk to the mother, or if the mother suffers from a severe mental disability. Regardless of any possible law adjustment, it has been observed by Gender Concerns International and other NGOs that the voices of the women themselves have often been ignored in the debate about their own sexual and reproductive health. Their voices are being drowned out by the resistance of conservative religious groups and reluctant government officials. Moreover the patriarchal structures in place hamper the debate, whilst at the same time restricting the effective implementation of the positive laws and regulations already in place.

With regards to political participation by women in Sierra Leone, Zainab Umu Kamara, Acting Registrar of Gender Concerns International partner organization: the Political Parties Registration Commission, noted in 2013 that:

‘Women account for 52 per cent of the total population in Sierra Leone, yet occupy less than 20 per cent of elected positions. Their contributions to the country’s agriculture amount to about 60-80 per cent and the agricultural sector represents 51 per cent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, their voice visibility, participation and representation in elective and appointment positions still remain relatively low. Women seeking leadership and decision making positions in Sierra Leone face enormous challenges compared to men. Some of these challenges include:

Lack of economic independence

High illiteracy and entrenched customs and traditions

Lack of confidence to vie for public positions for fear of embarrassment of losing’

Click here for the full speech of Zainab Umu Kamara

In the most recent elections of 2012, women were severely marginalized and underrepresented. The electoral colleges are typically dominated by men and often hostile to female candidates. Furthermore, in the various candidacies, the discrimination of women became even more visible. There were only 75 female candidates for member of-Parliament seats, representing around 11% of the total number of candidates. From a total of 1,624 candidates contesting at the local government elections, only 342, or 21%, were women. Moreover it was observed that during the nomination period female candidates were often subjected to various forms of intimidation. Instances of electoral violence, during both campaigns and elections, targeting female candidates were also reported.

Women in Sierra Leone have always made vital contributions to the economy and have often played a substantial role in the subsistence of their families. In the rural labor force, women provided more than 60% of farm labor for food production, but this formed part of a larger power dynamic problem as men still possessed greater access to ownership and control of the production, reducing women to a marginal position. In recent years the government and its partners have been focusing on providing women with access to financial services as it has the potential to act as the catalyst for enhancing women’s economic, social and political empowerment. It helps mobilize their productive capacity to alleviate poverty and to maximize economic output.

However, Gender Concerns International and other NGOs have noted that there is still a large percentage of women excluded from financial services provisions. This has manifested itself predominantly in rural areas, where men tend to have more access than women to “big” borrowing ability from commercial banks. In turn, this leads men often setting up and managing big ventures, whilst women are confined to the microfinance industry, and are therefore only financially capable to run small and often low profitable businesses. Unfortunately, the reality reflects that while many women worked in the economic field - 65.7% compared to 68.9% for men - they did not record substantial growth in their economic activities. This has been the result of inadequate skills development, low educational status, low economic power and restricted access to credit facilities. The disparity between the economic status of women and men has often resulted in economic dependency by women. Gender Concerns International and its partner organizations have recorded to their dismay, that in many instances men exploit this dependency to consolidate control over women, thus further perpetuating their poverty.

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