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Women speak out on constitutional review

Wednesday, September 23, 2015 - 15:20

Women from all corners of Sierra Leone met recently in September in the country’s capital city, Freetown to speak as “one voice” to consolidate their input to the constitutional making process.

The women, meeting under the theme: “Sierra Leone Women in Constitutional Review: Speaking and Acting with One Voice,” comprised various women group representatives from all the 12 Districts of the country. The one and half day workshop, which was also called the “Expert Group Meeting on Women’s Common Position Papers,” was organised by ActionAid in partnership with, the UN Women, 50/50 Group and the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP).

Sierra Leone, led by the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) has since 2014 been conducting various consultation processes that will see the country coming with a new supreme law to replace the 1991 Constitution. The old constitution has been criticized by many civic society organisations of lacking gender equality and it discriminates women from actively participating in various local and national decision making structures in the country.

Sierra Leone is expected to have a new constitution by 2016, after a referendum.

While women constitute more than half of Sierra Leone’s population, they are lagging in active involvement in key sectors of development in the country. Only 12% out of a total of 127 members of Parliament for Sierra Leone are women.

The coalition of the women’s groups is calling for quota systems to be introduced in the constitution that will see more women actively participating as members of parliament, paramount chiefs and other key decision making structures in the country.

Women should have a right to be a Paramount chief, the same way as their brothers, fathers or husbands have the right to, one woman said. She added that Paramount chiefs should lose their legal control of the land and leave families to take charge.  The current constitution does not allow women to be paramount chiefs in certain parts of the country due to the recognition by the constitution of cultural and traditional beliefs that may or may not allow women to contest to be paramount chiefs.

The women called for the removal of clauses in the constitution that discriminate women’s access to and control of land and other natural resources and pressed for the harmonisation of the tenure system and a uniform system across the country.

The issue of allowing women to determine their children’s citizenship or nationality took a considerable share of the meeting with many women saying citizenship laws in the country should not discriminate women from determining their children’s citizenship.

Some of the many recommendations made by the women include that the new constitution should use gender inclusive language, e.g. he or she, social protection should be extended to the elderly and survivors of sexual violence while women’s rights should be enshrined in the new constitution.  

“Early and child marriages which affect more girls than boys, should be made void in the new constitution. There should be no discrimination on the basis of sex in both private and public spheres. Women want affirmative action in all sectors to address economic and social backwardness of women and deal with poverty which is the face of the woman in Sierra Leone. The right to education and training for women and girls should be guaranteed. Market women are calling for the right to employment,” said Yasmin Jusu Sheriff, a Lawyer making a presentation on some of the recommendations made by the women. The recommendations are to be taken to the Constitutional Review Commission.

 Yasmin has been assigned by the various women groups to compile the recommendations from the women for submission to the Constitutional Review Commission.

“As women we have to make a lot of noise to make sure we are included in the mainstream development sectors of our country. As I speak now out of 85 Constitutional Review Commission members, only 15% are women and this has been a result of women’s organisations which engaged the CRC,” said Yasmin.

The women said government public policy spending should prioritise on social service delivery for example health and social protection than paying hefty salaries to public workers.

The general recommendations made by the women include issues to do with the right to life, health and national identity, promotion of diversity and removal of the discrimination on the basis of disability and religion.  

In 2013, ActionAid also supported nationwide consultations with women on the review of the 1991 Constitution.