We were encouraged to see that President Koroma dedicated two paragraphs under the heading: Empowering Women toward the end of his speech for the opening of Parliament in December 2012. With nothing else in recent history to give women of Salone hope, we are hanging on every word of his promises to women in his “agenda for change.” We therefore, find it necessary to carefully examine some of his statements. How sincere is our President about his will to “empower women?”.
In paragraph 93, he said, Deeply embedded socio-cultural practices have over the years skewed the development of women in Sierra Leone and tilted the gender equality scale to the detriment of the nation.
While we do not dispute the contribution of socio-cultural practices on our plight as women in Salone, we find this statement to be a smokescreen that shifts accountability from the leader of our nation and his government to an intangible entity that could never be held accountable in the matter of women’s suffering. We therefore, beg to differ with His Excellency on this and argue that the buck stops with him. As the chief executive of our nation who has at his disposal the supreme laws of the land, which supersedes all other laws or practices, the Constitution of Sierra Leone, all he has to do is play a leadership role in the enforcement of these laws to protect the rights of women.
In paragraph 93, he also said, In our Agenda for Change, we passed gender equity legislations
We missed that memo. Since he did not elaborate, we are assuming he meant the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act of 2009, which provides for the registration of customary marriages and divorces and related matters; and the Domestic Violence Act of 2007, which is a legislation that provides protection for the victims of domestic violence. Bravo for putting these laws on the books; but just as all the other laws that are meant to protect women, the passage of these “gender equity legislations” have yet to be in in full force.
Another statement in paragraph 93 says,We appointed women to higher positions more than any government
Given the awful record of our past leaders on the issue of gender parity in leadership, it does not take much to beat their records; we therefore find this comparison immaterial. Another issue that also voids this claim is the fact that women who have been appointed to higher positions in previous and current administrations have not been and are not average women who are “breaking barriers” and gaining employment or leadership appointments; instead, these are women whose trajectory into these positions come from very strong family and political connections to the leadership network.
Nepotism is chronic in our country, hence the adage, “it is not what you know but who you know in Salone.” Nepotism in the appointment of women in leadership positions is not a new practice; it is so ingrained in our society that, rather than strive to succeed on their own merit, Salone women strive hard for connections to the men in power by all means possible. Even as mistresses, especially since there are hardly any role models for the average woman to hope for success without this connection. This is one of the main reasons young women (and men) would rather dream about leaving the country to seek greener pastures abroad than to stay and help develop a country in which your chances for success are nil without connections to the big men in power.
Like all his predecessors, the women benefiting from President Koroma’s appointments are not the average Kema, Kumba or Yeabu, rather, these are women from within his network of relatives, political allies and their connections; which makes no meaningful improvement for the condition of average womenfolk in Salone.
Also in paragraph 93 he says, Ensured the provision of free healthcare to pregnant women, lactating mothers and children…
This was a noble gesture by President Koroma, with the backing of UK/DFID funding; unfortunately, the victory President Koroma alludes to has not been the reality for the majority of women. The reality, of course, is much gloomier. Women are still dying in childbirth in high numbers, so are their babies.
The majority of women reside in the rural regions of Salone and these women are not accessing the so called free healthcare; many find it to be a farce as they are asked at the clinics to pay for a number of supplies, medications and other materials related to their treatment. Women are asked to pay for stationery used for record keeping, syringes, etc., they also pay for what has been dubbed cost recovery medications, which include all medications with the exception of the only two that are covered by the free healthcare: Paracetamol (pain) and Ampicillin (infections). If a woman’s or her child’s illness requires medicines other than these two, which is more often the case, she is asked to pay for medications she thought she could get for free.
In addition to all this, women spend endless hours waiting to receive treatment for themselves or their babies, some times for days. It is so frustrating for women that many in the rural regions do not seek medical help from the free healthcare clinics.
ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS
President Koroma’s recent cabinet appointments was a missed opportunity for him to walk his talk and to buy the trust and confidence of Salone women. In his new cabinet of about 30 members, ONLY 2 are women; and these are not women he picked at random, they are well connected to him and his network.
After such an eloquent speech, with all the polished words and promises to be the president who stands for the “empowerment of women,” his cabinet does not paint a picture of what he is promising, this is one big damper on women’s hope for advancement in his last term.
The tale of the orphaned ministry
Another telltale action that further diminishes our trust in what the President says regarding his will to advance women’s cause in Salone is how he has been handling the government agency that is entrusted with welfare of women and children. Of grave concern is the extremely high turnaround of ministers for the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, in President Koroma’s first administration. We see this as an indication of serious neglect, as it is the most important government agency charged with the affairs of women. A brief comparison with his predecessor illustrates our point:
During his decade-long administration, President Koroma’s immediate predecessor, Alhaj Tejan Kabba, who is no saint when it comes to women’s empowerment, the ministry went through leadership change only once:
- Amy Smythe from 1996 to 1998
- Shirley Gbujama from 1998 to 2007
In comparison, during President Koroma’s first administration, five different ministers have headed this ministry:
- Madam Musu Kandeh from October 2007 to February 2009
- Dr. Soccoh Kabia from February 2009 to December 2010
- Dr. Dennis Sandy from December 2010 to August 2011
- Madam Rosaline Oya Sankoh from August 2011 to November 2011
- Mr. Stephen Gaojia from November 2011 to December 2012
The condition of this ministry is directly correlated to the welfare of women and children in Salone. It has been treated like a motherless child bounced from foster parent to foster parent several times, with no one given enough time to get to know, love, care and nurture the child. This is very telling on the current condition of women in our country.
If President Koroma wants women to believe that his Agenda for Change includes them, and have confidence in his promise to make policy changes that will empower women, he needs to start showing it in his actions; women have heard it all, he has to break this vicious cycle of our leaders duping women by making lofty promises that they have no intention of keeping. He can start by showing signs through his actions that,
- he is willing to change the chronic practice of nepotism, especially in appointing women
- that he is willing to create a path to leadership for all Salone women who strive for it without having to forge connections to the men in power.