Bio Leaves No Development Stone Unturned
By Betty Milton, Brussels, Belgium
In his New Direction Manifesto, President Julius Maada Bio committed to addressing a lot of burning issues, apart from his flagship project, the Free Quality Education and other human capital development-related agendas. Since being elected, President Bio has championed women’s empowerment, believing that if a nation should prosper, women should be part of the process and thus should be given a space that befits their status.
Gender empowerment was amongst the President’s promises, as stated among other women issues:
• Domesticate and implement national and international instruments
• Increase the chances of women in politics through:
– Amending the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone to increase the chances of women to participate in politics
– Reviewing and enacting the minimum 30% Quota Bill which creates the chance for women to hold 30% of positions in elective office and appointment positions.
– Providing training and funding for female candidates for public elections.
In Sierra Leone’s fledgling democracy, there have been few gender bills, like the three gender Bills: the Domestic Violence Law, the Devolution of Estates Law and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Law, enacted to protect the well-being and security of women. Similarly, the Republic of Sierra Leone has also domesticated many international treaties on gender but none had to do with gender empowerment.
Let us don’t forget that there were also several promises made by the past government to give a 30% quota to women and to also reserved seats for women in politics. But like Emerson would say these were just “ordinary words on paper”, nothing was done to fulfil them.
Today, we have a committed leader who does not mince his words but has vowed to leave no stone unturned to fulfil his manifesto promises, doing things that naysayers believed were mere niceties aimed at winning the presidential ticket.
Since he assumed office in 2018, President Bio has taken bold actions on many gender issues to improve the status of women in Sierra Leone. The separation of the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs; lunch of the one-stop centre with six centres as pilot projects—centres that seek to provide one-stop locations for multi-sectoral response services that support survivors, the creation of a special sexual and offences court contributing to the early judgement of cases and minimising crime rates are part of the myriad of structural adjustments he has achieved so far.
Women’s empowerment is a critical aspect of achieving gender equality; it includes increasing a woman’s sense of self-worth, decision-making power, access to opportunities and resources, power and control over her own life inside and outside the home, and effect change.
Gender empowerment programmes are increasingly becoming a cornerstone of anti-poverty efforts in many developing countries. It could be noted that the recent interest in improving a lot of women in developing countries, culminating in the Cairo Population conference of 1994 and the Women’s conference of 1995 in China, has led international agencies and feminist organizations alike to rally behind the concept of women’s empowerment.
The need to “empower” women in developing countries so that gender inequalities will be reduced, socioeconomic conditions will improve, and population growth will subside is now a common norm.
Given the above, President Julius Maada Bio and his cabinet have approved the Gender Empowerment Bill 2021 and authorised the Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs to present the Bill in Parliament for ratification. The 30% Quota approved in Parliament last week is in fulfilment of President Bio’s manifesto promise to provide a safe political, social and economic haven for women in Sierra Leone. The President believes women deserve more by virtue of their population (above 50%), coupled with their innumerable contributions to national development.
The proposed Gender Empowerment Act has four components:
1- minimum 30% elective positions for women,
2- minimum 30% appointive positions for women,
3- improve and increase opportunities for women to obtain finance from financial institutions,
4- gender mainstreaming and budgeting across all sectors.
These four components espoused in the proposed Act are fundamental to the quest for gender equality as they will lay the basis for gender empowerment in Sierra Leone, addressing the risk of female exclusion and providing access to economic and political opportunities to bridge the gender gap.
Just in three years, President Bio has introduced a new breathe of air for women in the country, moving women issues from lip service and political rhetoric to taking concrete steps geared towards creating the space for women’s participation in the nation’s governance and development process.
Ending on this all-important note, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, former president of the UN General Assembly said, “We must ensure that men and boys are just as engaged in the quest for gender equality and women’s empowerment – we cannot afford to leave either half of humanity behind. But we know that we will not achieve this, or indeed any other development goal, without having more “women in power…”
President Dr Julius Maada Bio today addressed the Global Education Summit, the biggest of such events to encourage donors to raise $5 billion in the next 5 years, along with commitments from partner countries on domestic financing for education.
The President is one of only four African leaders participating in the 2021 Global Education Summit: Financing GPE 2021-2025 being co-hosted today by the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.
“I want to start off by saying that access to quality education is a fundamental human right. Besides, my government, has already stated the human capital development piece of it. But also, we want to make sure that human capital development is inclusive. For women or girls in particular, there is, of course, gender disparity, especially in the schools.
“And certain norms and discrimination have not allowed the girls to be able to continue to do their education. So, we have to take care of that. And, again, when you think about the number of girls who dropped out of school, I thought that it would be a big failure, on my part as a leader who is very passionate about education, to leave any girl behind,” he said.
The President also addressed the question of why did Sierra Leone recently overturn a law so that pregnant girls would never again be banned from classrooms. Julia Gillard, who is chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education, also asked the question of how did that action change the lives of girls across the country and increase access for all girls to quality education?
President Dr Julius Maada Bio said his government’s policy was to make sure that all girls, irrespective of the fact that they were pregnant, or not able to continue school, go back to school after childbirth.
“It was for this reason that we brought in this new policy. What has it done? Well, of course, it’s been difficult, we are trying to narrow the gender disparity gap, especially for pregnant girls. So, we had to bespeak this particular policy to make sure that those gender norms that militate against pregnant schoolgirls are taken care of. That is why we did this.
“What has it done? It has given confidence to girls, not to be pregnant, but to know that when they are pregnant, they still have another chance. That’s a huge number in Sierra Leone. Last year alone, from school census, we had about over 2000 girls who were registered pregnant schoolgirls. Normally, all of them will drop out of school, but because of this policy they have the chance to continue school. And our policy is about making sure that they stay in school as long as possible, and that they can return to school after childbirth.
You know, on a lot of occasions, we have put the burden on the girls, little girls in their formative years. We look at them to be sexual gatekeepers, who would have to say no. That is victimisation. We are being unreasonable. And of course, after they get pregnant, we accused them again. And that means secondary victimisation. What our policy has done is, it has gotten rid of the secondary victimisation.
We are doing everything to prevent early pregnancy. My wife is a big campaigner. She goes all over Sierra Leone. ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ is a campaign on her part, which means we don’t want anybody to tamper with these girls. But should they fall victims, we should not secondarily victimise them. And that is what this policy is about,” he said.