The Sierra Leone Web



If anyone asked me how often I use slogans, my answer would be "once in a while". Even as a politician, I would honestly say: "not too often". On a day like today, as I look around this gathering, and as I reflect on the capacity and potential of the Sierra Leonean women, I am inspired to come up with a slogan. I can assure you that it is one that comes straight from my heart. And here it is "Women of Sierra Leone Unite, you are a force to reckon with!"

Social Welfare Minister Shirley Gbujama decorates the President on his arrival at Makeni The President delivering his formal statement on the occasion of the International Women's Day

This is not just a mere slogan. It is a challenge. It is a call for women - our mothers and sisters - to stand for their right, their God-given right to participate fully, equally, and without any discrimination whatsoever, in the political, economic and social development of this country. And there is no better or appropriate occasion to amplify this call to action than today, the 8th of March, International Women's Day.

Earlier this week, a friend of mine remarked that as far as the status of women was concerned, Sierra Leone has done pretty well indeed. My response was, and still is, yes and no. We can take pride in the legacy of leadership in the political, cultural, humanitarian, religious and social fields that has been handed down to us by women such as Paramount Chief Mammy Yoko, Madam Adelaide Casely Hayford, Paramount Chief Ella Koblo-Gulama, Mrs Constance Cummings-John, Ms. Connie Barnes (commonly known as Nurse Connie), and Deaconess Jane Bloomer, to name a few.

Today, we can claim more than ever before that we have more women cabinet Ministers (only 12 per cent actually), women deputy Ministers, members of Parliament, heads of Government departments, Paramount and Section Chiefs, medical practitioners, military and police officers, judges. magistrates and private legal practitioners, and Principals of schools. Think of the number of women in the nursing and educational systems, without whose services those systems would be severely strained or perhaps approach the point of collapse.

Think also of the vital contribution that women have made in the field of agriculture and in marketing of foodstuffs. Think of the tender loving care of our mothers who, for all intents and purposes were our first teachers. It is appropriate to recall the words of the once popular record, entitled "Sweet Mother." "Sweet mother a noh go forget you foh di sohfa way yu sohfa foh mi." etc. etc. This should serve as a reminder of the crucial role that women play in the life of the home, the family, the community and the nation as a whole.

The President and other members of the high table watching a short drama depicting discrimintion and violence against women The President and other members of the high table watching a short drama depicting discrimintion and violence against women

With the number of armed conflict raging in many parts of the world, especially within States, the international community is now giving special attention to women's equal participation in conflict prevention, management and conflict resolution, and in post-conflict peace-building. We acknowledge the proactive stance that Sierra Leonean women and their organisations have taken in the peace process within Sierra Leone and as part of the network of women for peace in the Mano River sub-region.

Women and girls bore the brunt of the violence and other negative consequences of the rebel war. It is no surprise that women's organizations and groups have provided, among other things, counselling for displaced women who were victims of rape and other acts of sexual violence. Beyond that they have been involved in skills training and the implementation of health care and educational programmes. They have also organized seminars and workshops on development strategies for community level reconciliation. These are essential elements in consolidating the peace.

In so many ways women have complemented the efforts of Government in national development. We commend them for their initiatives and continued collaboration.

Madam Chair, I mentioned earlier that my response to the claim that Sierra Leone has a fairly good record as far as the status of women is concerned, is both yes and no.

Let us be frank and admit that despite the progress we have made, a lot more remains to be done to improve the equal participation of women in every area of development of our country.

A girl-child displays a banner agains forceful early marriages The President declaring his slogan urging women to unite as they are a force to reckon with

Take for example, access to financial resources and empowerment of women in economic development. Yes, over 4000 women have benefited from the micro-financing programme, which is an important component of Government's strategy to alleviate poverty. However, when we consider their superb performance in loan repayments, the high sense of financial responsibility that they have demonstrated in the micro-financing programme, women deserve better treatment in the disbursement of loans or 'seed money' for poverty alleviation. Women constitute slightly more than half of the population of the country. Shouldn't they have more, or at least equal access to financial and economic power that men enjoy?

In this regard, Government has laid the basic foundation for better access, through the micro-financing programme. This is a modest beginning. We have to build on it. The private sector must, and I repeat must, also join us and make a determined effort to open its doors and provide women access to financial resources. For their part, women also have to devise ways and means of breaking down the barriers that deny them access to financial and economic power. Herein lies the challenge for women to unite and stand for their rights. I believe that women have the capacity to assume some responsibility for what could be described as 'gender emancipation'. Women must know, and let their disadvantaged sisters know their rights.

Another area that we still have a whole lot to do is in the protection of women from violence and abuse. As we all know, violence against women takes many forms and manifests itself in the physical, emotional and psychological capacity of its victims. Violence against women ruins their health, erodes their self-confidence and self-esteem, and impedes their full participation in society.

We must reverse that trend. On this International Women's Day, let us pledge to work together. Government and civil society, in developing relevant legal, administrative and other measures to increase the protection of our mothers and sisters from all forms of violence and abuse.

While women have the right and responsibility, as far as possible, to protect themselves from violence and abuse, the job is not theirs alone. The call for more concrete action in the area of protection is directed at men and all those who feel they can subjugate and exploit women, those who subject women to cruel practices, and those who still believe that women are their personal property, to the extent that they can be used and abused at will. It is our collective responsibility to bring about meaningful change, including a change of attitude towards women.

Madam Chair, the quality and content of our effort to improve the status of women would be measured by the action we undertake for the welfare of the girl child. Last year, in launching our education opportunity project "Operation Sababu" in Kambia, I drew attention to the need for us to do more for the girl child, especially in those parts of the country where women are still struggling to assert their right of equal participation in, for instance, community leadership. I made a small personal but symbolic gesture by offering every girl child who passes the National Primary Education (NPSE) Certificate some material incentives to continue their education. Other incentives may be necessary to help accelerate gender mainstreaming.

As we join others worldwide in observing International Women's Day, I think it is necessary for us to propagate what we have done and what remains to be done to enhance the status and condition of women in Sierra Leone. On this occasion, let me take this opportunity to urge the relevant governmental and non-governmental institutions to cooperate in ensuring that we comply with our obligations as a State Party to the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The submission to reports, in a timely manner, to the UN Committee responsible for monitoring implementation of the Convention, should be seen as part of the global effort to enhance the status of the women. Sierra Leone is in fact a branch of the international movement of women, and for women.

Madam Chair, allow me also to take this opportunity to remind ourselves that in the next seven weeks, women will have an opportunity to strengthen their capacity in decision-making by participating fully in the local elections. It is an opportunity for women to choose and vote for the candidates of their choice, those who are willing and capable of promoting the rights and status of women in their communities, and those who are also capable of serving the larger interest of the nation.

Madam Chair, I am pleased that one of the highlights of this commemoration of International Women's Day is the mounting of an exhibition on the theme "Women's Agricultural Production." It is intended to underscore the important contribution that women can make to meeting what has become our national objectives in the area of food security and the reduction of poverty and hunger. Secondly, the exhibition should remind us of the great potential of agricultural investment. Thirdly, as we can see from the quality of the exhibits here today, we can produce natural and nutritious foodstuffs, and it is possible to drastically reduce our dependence on imported food. Finally, the exhibition is a demonstration of partnership between women and men in this vital sector of the nation's development.

I would like to congratulate all the women and men who have brought their agricultural products for this exhibition.

May this observance of International Women's Day inspire us to unite our strength in enhancing the status of women - our mothers and sisters. In doing so we would be contributing directly and indirectly to the overall economic and social development of our country.

I thank you for your attention.