Women in Sierra Leone
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Sierra Leone, officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, is a Constitutional Republic in West Africa. Since it was founded in 1787, the women in Sierra Leone have been a major influence in the political and economic development of the nation.
Sierra Leonean women face extreme gender inequality. They experience high levels of poverty, violence, and exclusion. Nevertheless, they have also played an important role in the education system, founding schools and colleges, with some such as Hannah Benka-Coker being honoured with the erection of a statue for her contributions and Lati Hyde-Forster, first woman to graduate from Fourah Bay College being honored with a doctor of civil laws degree by the University of Sierra Leone.
Early history (1787–1900)
In the 1792 elections, all heads of household could vote and one-third were ethnic African women.
The majority of repatriated women were Yoruba. The Yoruba were different from traditional African ethnic groups in that men tended the fields which allowed the women to trade. This independence gave women the freedom to travel. As they were financially independent, they were able to divorce to improve their lives economically.
From 1830, the women in Sierra Leone were well known for their trading of non-slave-related items. A notable woman trader of the period was who had married a butcher, Thomas, and sold meat to the army.
The Krio female traders were predominantly Christian. They traded along the entirety of the West Coast expanding both their trade and spreading the Christian religion. However, by 1900 European companies began to dominate trade and the Krio moved to other professions such as medicine and teaching.
In 1878, Madam Yoko became the Queen of Kpaa Mende Seneghum, which had become one of the largest political alliances within the interior. She also went to war against smaller tribes to increase her holdings. In 1898 she supported the British during a rebellion, which also allowed her to expand her holdings. At the time of her death in 1906, her confederacy had become so large it had to be divided into 15 chiefdoms.
In the city of Freetown, before World War One a woman's position was decided on either class or ethnicity. The Krio people were the dominant ethnic group, with some having access to a better education, the wealthier families had their daughters sent to British finishing schools. The majority of Krio women however fell into the lower classes and their education usually did not go beyond elementary school level.:439
In 1915, Adelaide Casely-Hayford played an important part regarding women's rights in Freetown giving a lecture on "The rights of Women and Christian Marriage". In 1923 she founded the "Girls Industrial and Technical Training School" with the aim to make women self-sufficient economically.:440 In 1930 women were given the right to vote, according to local lawyer J. C. Zizer this could be attributed to the numbers of women who now worked in the civil service where their employment terms were equal to their male counterparts.:442
In 1938, Constance Cummings-John was the first woman in Africa to be elected to a municipal council and she was the first woman to be elected Mayor of Freetown. Her actions led to the formation of the Sierra Leone Market Women's Union and the Washerwoman's Union. In 1952 she founded the Sierra Leone women's movement as well as a newspaper. She founded the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls and funded it from the proceeds of her quarrying business.
In 1943, Frances Wright was called to the bar, becoming the first female lawyer in Sierra Leone, she was also given an appointment by the government as a magistrate. She was a legal adviser to the British High Commission in Freetown and was considered a champion of women's rights.
In 1957, four women ran for parliament: , Constance Cummings-John, Ellen G.A. Caulker and Mrs. C.T. Williams. Cummings-John and Richards both won their bids but their party filed electoral petitions against them, preventing them from taking their seats.
Two female candidates stood for parliamentary seats in 1967: Yema Catherine Williams and Julie Keturah Kayode.
1978 saw as the sole woman to stand for parliament in the general election.
1970 - 1990
In 1970, out of the 81 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone, 10 were led by women.
In 1989, UNICEF reported that on average a woman in Sierra Leone worked up to 16 hours a day and that the majority were surviving on just one meal per day. There was a maternal mortality rate of 70% primarily from infections and malnutrition.
1990 - 2000
A report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that thousands of women and girls were abducted from their homes and suffered physical-, sexual- and psychological abuse, including rape and forced pregnancy. Many of them were subject to servitude, slavery and forced cannibalism while others were drugged, tortured and murdered.
2000 - present
On June 14, 2007, the Parliament of Sierra Leone passed three laws which made wife-beating illegal, allowing women to inherit property and to protect women from forced marriage. However, in 2014, 63% of women aged 15–49 still held the belief that male partners were justified in hitting and beating their female partners under certain circumstances.
The 2007 Domestic Violence Act is rarely enforced as survivors are required to submit a medical report to the police. The majority of women in Sierra Leone cannot afford to pay the medical examination fee nor can they afford the cost of a lawyer to represent them. Many women in the rural areas of Sierra Leone still are not aware that domestic violence is a crime or of their rights.
In 2012, 10,000 Sierra Leonean men participated in a project called Husband School where they learned about gender equality, domestic violence, reproductive health, female genital mutilation and family planning. Husband School is organized by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Fambul Initiative Network for Equality Sierra Leone (FINE-SL). Attendance is enforced by local Paramount Chiefs.
The adoption of Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act made 18 the legal age for marriage. Prior to this, there was no minimum age for marriage nor was consent from both parties a prerequisite. In rural Sierra Leone, it was not uncommon for girls under the age of 13 to be given in marriage to elderly men. The law aims to protect women and girls from forced marriage as well as physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Reproductive rights in Sierra Leone
In 2013, Sierra Leone had the 7th highest teen pregnancy rate in the world. 38% of Sierra Leonean women aged 20–24 had given birth to their first baby before the age of 18. Teenage pregnancy is a major contributing factor to Sierra Leone's high maternal mortality rate as teenage mothers have a 40%-60% risk of dying in childbed. Babies born to teenage mothers have a 50% higher risk of being stillborn or dying shortly after birth than babies born to mothers over the age of 20.
9 out of 10 girls and women in Sierra Leone have undergone female genital mutilation, often as part of the traditional Bundu or Bondu initiation ceremony into the Sande society. Generally, Sierra Leonean women have a positive view of female genital mutilation. Two-thirds of girls and women undergo the practice between ages 5 and 14.
Women Pioneers of Sierra Leone
The names are placed in chronological order:
- First woman to graduate Fourah Bay College Lati Hyde-Forster.
- First woman graduate of the Evangelical College of Theology (Sierra Leone Bible College): 1995.
- First woman to head the English Department at Fourah Bay College: Dr. Kadi Sesay.
- First woman to become queen Queen of Kpaa Mende Seneghum: Madam Yoko, 1878.
- First woman elected to a municipal council: Constance Cummings-John, 1938.
- First woman member of the Moyamba District Council, Ella Koblo Gulama, 1957.
- First woman member of the House of Representatives of Sierra Leone: Ella Koblo Gulama, 1957.
- First women to win seats in parliament: Constance Cummings-John and Patience Richards, 1957.
- First woman to run as an independent candidate for parliament: , 1957.
- First woman member Cabinet Minister: Ella Koblo Gulama, 1962.
- First woman mayor of Freetown: Constance Cummings-John, 1966.
- First woman ambassador to Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia: Shirley Gbujama, 1976.
- First woman ambassador to the United Nations: Shirley Gbujama, 1978.
- First woman to be Minister of Development and Economic Planning: Dr. Kadi Sesay, 1999.
- Gender equality advocacy organization 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone is established: Dr. Nemata Majeks-Walker, 2001.
- First woman to be Minister of Sierra Leone Minister of Trade and Industry: Dr. Kadi Sesay, 2002.
- First woman to head the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights: Dr. Kadi Sesay.
- First female Minister of Health:
- First woman to run for vice-president Dr. Kadi Sesay, 2012.
- First woman head regional operations for the All Peoples Congress (APC): Diana Finda Konomanyi, 2010.
- First woman Minister of Local Government and Rural Development: Diana Finda Konomanyi, 2012.
- First woman Minister of Lands, Country Planning, and the Environment: Diana Finda Konomanyi, 2015.
- First woman head regional operations for Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP): , 2018
- First woman to run for president: Femi Claudius Cole, 2018.
- Second women to run for vice-president: Isata Dora Bangura, 2018.
- First woman attorney general and minister Dr. Priscilla Schwartz, 2018.
- First woman to qualify as a lawyer in Sierra Leone and West Africa: Stella Thomas, circa 1940.
- Second woman to qualify as a lawyer: , OBE, 1943.
- First woman judge: , circa 1970.
- First woman Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone: Umu Hawa Tejan-Jalloh, circa 1970.
- First woman appointed Justice of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone: , 1994.
- First woman of African descent to study drama at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: Jeillo Edwards.
- First Sierra Leonean woman CNN anchor: Isha Sesay, 2005.
- First women to win gold in the Heptathlon at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics: Eunice Barber, 1999.
- First women to win gold in the long jump at the All Africa Games: Eunice Barber, 1995.
- First women to win gold in the long jump at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics: Eunice Barber, 2003.
- First woman founder of a football club: Isha Johansen, 2004.
- First woman president of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA): Isha Johansen 2013.
Timeline of women's rights in Sierra Leone
- Constance Cummings-John becomes the first woman in Sierra Leone and all of Africa to be elected to a municipal council.
- (SLPP), Constance Cummings-John(SLPP), Ellen G.A.Caulker of the United Sierra Leone People's Party (UPP) and Mrs. C.T.Williams are the first women in Sierra Leone to run for parliament.
- Domestic violence is criminalized with the adoption of the Domestic Violence Act.
- With the adoption of Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act, 18 became the legal age for marriage and requires the consent of both spouses. All marriages must be registered and both spouses may acquire property. Gifts, dowries, and payments are non-refundable.
- The Devolution of Estate Act is signed in to law. The estate of a deceased spouse must be equally distributed between their spouse and children. The expulsion of widows from their homes after the death of the husband is criminalized.
- The 30% Gender Party Quota Bill is drafted by women's rights activists Nemata Majeks-Walker, Barbara Bangura and Salamatu Kamara and submitted to parliament but it does not pass into law.
- The 2015 Safe Abortion Act is submitted to parliament by on 8 December 2015.
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