Opinion

Why men must join the women’s struggle

19 July 2011 at 00:19 | 1300 views

By Unisa Dizo-Conteh, London, UK.

The struggle for equal opportunities for women in all aspects of Sierra Leone’s socio-economic life is as crucial for our country’s future as it is to women. Consequently, men and women must fight this battle together.

Women’s groups in Sierra Leone are robustly pushing the government to establish laws to increase the representation of women in public life. And young women are joining in too.

Vickie Remoe, a young women’s activist, who describes herself as a “Warrior Queen,” argues on her blog that increasing the role of women will “sow the seeds of socio-cultural change,” which will benefit women. And, by extension the whole country.

Although Sierra Leone is trying hard to improve, it is a developing country – where, amongst other considerations, poverty is rife. For women, in a country where male dominance is widespread and entrenched, unsurprisingly, the inequalities they face are more severe. Life expectancy for women is about 40 years – in the West the averagely is closer to 80 years.

Women face poor access to education, health facilities as well as discrimination in the job market. Beating by men and sexual harassment as well as rape account for some of the other problems women face. And indeed this is shameful.

In 2007, the government of Sierra Leone passed laws to protect the rights of women. The laws covered areas of domestic violence, registration of customary marriage and divorce, and devolution of estates. Politicians know that, sometimes, you can’t mess about with women when they’ve taken strong a stand. So, it seems highly likely that parliament will pass a law to force political parties to increase the opportunities for women.

Though no one is absolutely sure offer the best solution, these actions are steps in the right direction along the road to improving the lives of women. This will also give women a greater role to play in public life. In spite of these strides, yet, more still needs to be done to give women equal access to economic opportunities, education, health facilities and social freedoms.

This is all well and good, however, some things don’t appear to stack up. “With a population of 51% women in the country, a minimum 30% quota means that there will be more opportunities for more women,” according to Remoe. This begs the question: which women will benefit more?

While it now seems that the priority for women’s campaign and advocacy groups is on the 30 percent quota, one wonders if this is in line with the priorities for the rural women. The latter may have pressing basic needs including better sanitary facilities, access to clean water and education. Arguably, these do not seem to be the priority of the women in the forefront of the equality campaign.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), carried out by women, is a highly controversial practice. The practice inflicts permanent pain and harm to women. According to Amnesty International, 90 percent of the adult female population in the country had undergone this practice. This figure is, however, contested by other human right groups suggesting the true figure is about 65 percent. Many rights organisations have called for the banning of FGM. Many young women, if not all, are opposed to FGM. However, women’s groups have fallen short of calling for a total ban.

Another problem for the women’s struggle is the appearance of being vulnerable than being as capable as men. The fact that women are pushing for “quotas” could portray them as coming from a position of weakness. The weakest ones face the risk of being manipulated by powerful and selfish men.

Equally, the anti-male attitudes of some women’s campaigners, who often portray men as the problem or even “the enemy,” present another problem for the women’s struggle. For example, women in certain quarters are implying that Sierra Leone had not progressed over the last 50years because all the leaders were men. It is not uncommon to hear the sentiment: “why don’t they allow women to run the country and see how we progress?”

Unsurprising, some analysts have argued that the bringing up of children is what women do best and it’s better for society to operate that way. However, history has clearly shown us that women have contributed more to our society than just bringing up children.

Indeed women’s immense contribution to Sierra Leone’s development is significant to our country’s history. From Madam Yoko, who had great power and influence during colonial rule in the late 19th century - to women who challenged military regimes and fought for peace. The presence of Madam Ella Koblo Gulama in Sierra Leone’s first post-independence cabinet has not led to the sort of advancement that her appointment appeared to herald.

At the height of the civil war, women organised, what was believed to be the largest march across Sierra Leone, calling for peace. They succeeded. The rebels and the government listened. The women’s brave action, amongst others, resulted in the historic signing of the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord. More than a decade on, peace and stability continue to prevail.

The role of women in every aspect of our country’s socio-economic development is highly necessary. Better still the increased advocacy role they play.

So, YES, Sierra Leonean women and girls have the right to fight for equal opportunities. This is not only good for our women but good for our country’s development too. As the saying goes: “behind every successful man, there’s a woman.” So too, one could argue that behind ever successful nation, there’s unity and equality between men and women. So, in the dream to make us a greater nation why not support our women in their fight for gender equality?

Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the president of Young Leaders-Sierra Leone (www.ylsl.org) - an organisation that promotes youth empowerment and participation in nation building. His organisation has been a key partner in celebrations to mark Sierra Leone’s 50th independence anniversary in London this year. Dizo’s organisation supports gender equality.

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