Since 2012, 11th October has been marked as the International Day of the Girl. This is inline with United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 to declare the day as the International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC), The day aims to highlight and address the needs and challenges girls face, while promoting girls' empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights
It could be recalled that nearly 25 years ago, some 30,000 women and men from nearly 200 countries arrived in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women, determined to recognize the rights of women and girls as human rights. The conference culminated in the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: the most comprehensive policy agenda for the empowerment of women.
In the years following, women pressed this agenda forward, leading global movements on issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health rights to equal pay. More girls today are attending and completing school, fewer are getting married or becoming mothers while still children, and more are gaining the skills they need to excel in the future world of work.
Today, these movements have expanded. They are being organized by and for adolescent girls, and tackling issues like child marriage, education inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, self-esteem, and girls’ rights to enter places of worship or public spaces during menstruation. Girls are proving they are unscripted and unstoppable.
This year, under the theme, “Equal Rights of Girls”, we will celebrate achievements by, with and for girls since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
Chapter IV (L) of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action which is captioned the “The girl-child” says that in many countries available indicators show that the girl child is discriminated against from the earliest stages of life, through her childhood and into adulthood. In some areas of the world, men outnumber women by 5 in every 100. The reasons for the discrepancy include, among other things, harmful attitudes and practices, such as female genital mutilation, son preference - which results in female infanticide and prenatal sex selection - early marriage, including child marriage, violence against women, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, discrimination against girls in food allocation and other practices related to health and well-being. As a result, fewer girls than boys survive into adulthood.
This therefore has caused serious problems for the growth from girl child to a woman. In every society, there is practically no woman who will say she did not pass the stage of being a girl child. As always, however, girls are often treated as inferior and are socialized to put themselves last, thus undermining their self-esteem. Sierra Leone is no exception.
On issue relating to freedom of girls in Sierra Leone, we must know that as a country, we have had several laws revolving the welfare of the girl child. Since the country ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) there have been robust measures to suppress the gap of inequality between boys and girls on one hand and between men and women on the other hand. The Constitution in sections 15 and 27 all frown against the act of discrimination of persons on the basis of sex and age. The Child Rights Act, the Devolution of Estate Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Violence Act have all proved to be landmark legal instruments that protect the rights of girls in Sierra Leone.
We must however know that there is no law in Sierra Leone that talks about compulsory representation of women and girls. The aspect of girl’s empowerment has been the most difficult and must hard-to-get goal. Basically, this is because, in my view, girls and later women are faced with several deterring factors in achieving their goals in all the stages of socialization- from the family where the welfare of male children are prioritized, to the society which has standards that impedes the progress of girls, to schools where sex for grades is paramount to finally the offices where women are sexually harassed. Every stage of a female’s life prove to be extremely challenging.
But how can all of there be addressed? The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Chapter IV (L) detailed Strategic objective of the declaration. These objectives if adequately implemented by the Government of Sierra Leone, I believe will definitely address the level of disparity between the welfare of girls and boys. They are:
- Eliminate all forms of discrimination against the girl child: this include the full implementation of all the gender laws.
- Eliminate negative cultural attitudes and practices against girls: this includes the legislation against forceful Female Genital Mutilation
- Promote and protect the rights of the girl child and increase awareness of her needs and potential: this include creating awareness on the disadvantages of girls amongst policy makers
- Eliminate discrimination against girls in education, skills development and training: this include universal and equal access to Free Quality Education
- Eliminate discrimination against girls in health and nutrition: this means to implement policy guidelines to create awareness on the health of girls.
- Eliminate the economic exploitation of child labour and protect young girls at work
- Eradicate violence against the girl child
- Promotes the girl’s child awareness of and participation in social, economic and political life. And finally,
- Strengthen the role of the family in improving the status of the girl child.
My belief is that if all of these are addressed in Sierra Leone, we will definitely achieve Equal Rights of Girls in all spectrum of the society.
So let me end my statement with a quote from the UN Secretary General António Guterres who says “We need to uphold the equal rights, voices and influence of girls in our families, communities and nations. Girls can be powerful agents of change, and nothing should keep them from participating fully in all areas of life.”
By the 1970s the limitations of the emphasis on civil and political liberties for women became increasingly clear as the UN struggled with the issues of poverty, malnutrition, and population as it began its preparations for the World Food Conference (1974) and the World Population Conference (1974)
Aminata Kane, Chief Executive Officer of one of the country’s telecommunications companies operating in Sierra Leone, Orange SL, was one of the panel speakers at the Africa Digital Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that brought together individuals from different countries of the telecommunications landscape.
The Office Of The First Lady, in collaboration with The Ministry of Gender and social welfare staged a peaceful protest against sexual violence on Sat 15th Dec. in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This is the first time in Africa, that we have First Ladies coming together to support their counterpart by participating in a peaceful protest. The procession started at the Supreme Court Building at Cotton tree, to Aberdeen Junction 8km away. The Protest is part of the program to Launch the First Lady’s 2019 – 2022 strategic plan themed: “Hands Off Our Girls”.
Usually, these kind protests aimed at empowering women and dealing with social issues, are initiated and carried out by non-governmental organisations. Our unconventional First Lady is taking the lead on advocating for women and children because she is passionate about issues concerning them.
Before the commencement of the protest, The Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Hon . Baindu Dassama , read the position paper she submitted to the Minister of Justice at the front of the supreme court building. Hon. Dassama is not happy about the state of affairs concerning violence against women, this she said should be carefully examined and justice should prevail. The Attorney General and Minister of Justice; Hon. Priscilla Schwartz, responding to the document, made it clear, the issue will be treated with the seriousness it deserves.
The First Lady did not pull punches. She stated that rape will not be tolerated. She was down-to-earth , as she addressed the over 600 persons present at the submission of the Position document .
The peaceful protest started as The First Ladies from Chad, Gambia and Niger joined. The First Ladies were very energetic and made it clear that violence against women will not be tolerated in the continent. The protest started with about 1 thousand protesters at cotton tree, as at the time the procession got to Congo cross, there were over two thousand protesters.
What made the demonstration unique, was the support by the Police, the Military, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, they all joined the peaceful protest. Lawyers came to show support by participating in the protest, though the Lawyers did not have the “Hands off our Girls “ T-shirts, they joined the demonstration in their suites.
H. E. Fatima Maada Bio, believes this protest is an important avenue to bring about the much desired change in the society. Awareness created by the peaceful protest will put the spotlight on organisations meant to protect our women, and create a sense of accountability.
Beyond the Rhetoric and Black T-shirts: What next in protecting our Women and Girls against Sexual Offences
From International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 until December 10 each year, women around the world mark 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. During this period, campaigns are waged globally to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls. Under the 2018 theme Orange the World: #HearMeToo, a host of events are being held to raise awareness and create opportunities for dialogue between activists, policy-makers and the public.
Like in previous years, Sierra Leone has actively participated in this campaign. This year was particularly poignant as the statistics from the media pointed to the fact that the crisis is getting worse. Rape and other sexual and gender-based violence had been a persistent problem long before the war. The war brought matters to fore. Since then there have been numerous attempts to address these terrible crimes.
Many had assumed that with the enactment of the three Gender Acts of 2007, Domestic Violence Act; Devolution of Estates Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, and the subsequent enactment of the Sexual Offences Act (2012), the culture of impunity would rapidly be brought to an end. Although still early days since these laws were passed, the problem seems to be worsening.
Data circulating on social media suggested that there were 2579 sexual penetration cases so far in 2018 – 6 were HIV positive and 484 pregnant. Rainbo Center data obtained from its website indicate that in October 2018 there were 237 cases of sexual assault, 49 pregnancies, 103 sexually transmitted infections and 1 HIV/AIDS case. Radio Democracy which actively reports these cases has left many listeners equally depressed and enraged. The age of the victims is getting younger. 45-year-old man penetrates a 9-year-old girl. 28-year-old man rapes 5-year-old girl. 35-year-old man penetrates 4-year-old girl. Astonishingly and sickeningly, the youngest rape case was a 7-month-old baby.
Clearly, despite the enactment of these progressive laws and years of sensitization, the dastardly act remains pervasive. However, this is not the time for disillusionment or giving up. It is a time to double our efforts and to think of new strategies to defeat the pedophiles and rapists.
The Sexual Offences Act has made it relatively easier to prosecute rape and other sexual offences but the conviction rate remains low due in part to shortcomings in our criminal justice system. We lack prosecutors in most parts of the country. Geographical factors make the formal legal system inaccessible. The capacity of investigators remains limited. They lack basic equipment such as rape kits to undertake important tests. Key witness including parents and guardians refuse to cooperate and in some cases receive money to ‘settle’ the case out of court. The absence of a witness protection programme also makes witnesses afraid to come forward.Legal technicalities such as corroboration and in some cases the requirement of a voire dire where a witness is a child are also major impediments in the prosecution of sexual offences.
The media has not always helped. Some have published pictures or information about victims leading to the disclosure of their identity. This coupled with the lack of confidentiality has helped ensure that the stigmatization surrounding rape and the culture of silence remain firmly in place. As immediate family members are usually the perpetrators, lack of adequate social workers and halfway houses has also deterred many witnesses from coming forward.
Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS) continues to do a great job associating with the prosecution in a number of sexual offence cases. The Bar Association can do more to work with them in this laudable effort. We can also work with the Legal Aid Board to train more paralegals who can help victims navigate the legal process especially in parts of the countries where there are no lawyers or in instances where people cannot afford lawyers.
However, not all the problems are legal and the courts, though they need to do a lot more, should not be the only frontier where this war is fought. It must be a comprehensive and multi-pronged battle. It must be waged at home by parents. The long taboo of not discussing sex must end. Sex education and preventive mechanisms must be part of our curriculum in schools.
As we realized with Ebola, our traditional leaders have a crucial role to play. It is important that we engage them at every level in this struggle. They should not only help raise awareness but must ensure that the local courts deal sternly with perpetrators. As recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the practice under customary law of compelling women and girls who have been raped to enter into marriage with the offender should be abolished.
Achieving justice for victims of sexual violence requires long-term commitment. It also requires political will and collaboration amongst all the actors. It is a comprehensive journey that we must all support government in ensuring it is eradicated.
_Basita Michael is President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. It does not purport to reflect the position of any institution of which she is a member.
As court delivers first ever life sentence for child rape in the entire Pacific... Father jailed to life for raping biological daughters
THE High Court in Suva has made a milestone sentence after judge Justice Daniel Goundar sentenced a 74-year-old father to life imprisonment for raping two of his biological daughters.
While sentencing the man, Justice Goundar declined to fix a non-parole period.
The man is convicted of seven counts of rape and two counts of indecent assault.
The incidents occurred between 1982 and 2013.
Justice Goundar said the man got away for his crimes for 31 years because of the authority he had over the victims.
The court heard that he impregnated the first victim at the age of 14 years and later raped the child born out of the rape when the second victim turned 10 years.
Justice Goundar said the demon for those victims was real in the form of their own biological father.
The man has been sentenced to life imprisonment for each count of rape and five years imprisonment for the offence of indecent assault.
The State was represented by Assistant DPP Dato Shyamala Alagendra, Lavenia Bogitini and Juleen Fatiaki.
MEANWHILE, BELOW IS AN EDITORIAL DONE BY FIJI SUN ONLINE ON THE RULING OF THE HIGH COURT
EDITORIAL: ODPP Must Be Applauded For Setting Precedent In Rape Ruling
High Court judge Justice Daniel Goundar has shown that rapists and child rapists will not be let off easy by the justice system.
Yesterday, he sentenced a man to life imprisonment. The man, fathered a child after he raped his daughter. He went on to rape that child when she turn 10.
Justice Goundar showed this beast no mercy and convicted him of seven counts of rape and two counts of indecent assault.
This is the first time a rapist has been jailed for life by our courts. The role the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) played in this need to be acknowledged as well.
Assistant DPP Dato’ Shaymala Alagendra herself led the prosecution team in this case and argued successfully that the lives of both victims will never be the same again after going through 31 years of abuse.
She needs to be applauded for the role she and her team played in setting precedence in the country.
The state prosecution had called an expert witness, the Director of the Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Programme and a Clinical Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Dr Daryn Reicherter, in this case to give expert evidence on the mental health consequences of sexual violence and rape on children.
In his evidence, Dr Reicherter said that this case was one of the worst he had ever seen and said both victims in this case had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and showed severe anxiety symptoms as well as chronic suicidal thoughts and behaviour.
Last month the Supreme Court had set another precedence in another rape case, also involving a man who raped his biological daughters.
In this matter, the rapist, again, the father had appealed to the Supreme Court against his sentence of 16 years. The Supreme Court after hearing that the Office of the DPP has filed additional material showing an increase in the prevalence of child rape in Fiji, the court agreed the sentence required an enhancement.
He was jailed to 17 years and nine months, with a non-parole period of 16 years.
The court also agreed with the State that it was necessary to review the previous tariff of 10 to 16 years for child rape offences.
The court concluded that the current tariff for child rape offences in Fiji is now 11 to 20 years imprisonment. The court also said that the tariff could be exceeded in particularly heinous cases.
And, that is not all. Under the guidance of the Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde, his office yesterday filed documents appealing three rape sentences. They are of the view that the sentences are lenient and harsher penalties need to be imposed.
The Office of the DPP is doing its job, the Judiciary is doing its job in sentencing these rapists.
Are you? Are you turning a blind eye to the abuse?
President Julius Maada Bio Launches the ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ Campaign to end child marriage and reduce teenage pregnancy to empower women in Sierra Leone
Bintumani Hotel, Freetown, Friday 14 December 2018 – His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio has officially launched the ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ flagship programme of First Lady Fatima Bio, with the theme: “Ending Child Marriage and Reducing Teenage Pregnancy to Empower Women”.
Before that keynote statement, Her Excellency the First Lady, Fatima Bio, welcomed her colleague First Ladies from Africa and other stakeholders from across the country, adding that all of them had a common goal to ensure that rape, teenage pregnancy and all forms of abuses against woman and girls were completely eliminated.
She, however, admonished everyone in the gathering to join her campaign in ensuring zero tolerance for all forms of victimisations that endanger the lives of women and girls in African societies.
“Any man who rapes or places any form of violence against women and girls is not a real man and doesn’t fit in any decent society. Almost all girls who are raped are most likely to drop out of school. If the girl child is forced into early marriage, the bride price lasts only for two months. But if the girl child is cared for until she finishes her education, the benefit to the parents lasts forever,” she disclosed.
First Lady Fatima also called on Paramount Chiefs, other local authorities and everyone to come together to tackle violence and abuse against women and girls.
The Resident Representative of United Nations Funds for Population Activities, Dr Kim Eva Dickson, said that it was an honour to join the First Lady of Sierra Leone and other First Ladies in Africa in the campaign against all forms of violence against women and girls. She added that UNFPA and UNICEF were working closely to end child marriage, teenage pregnancy and rape, adding that they were committed to supporting the flagship programme of Her Excellency Fatima Bio.
“This is a fight we must do together because it resonates with our activities. UNFPA and UNICEF will do everything humanly possible to support the government of Sierra Leone and this programme,” she said.
Before he officially launched the initiative, His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio said he was happy to join hands with the Office of the First Lady and other African First Ladies in what was a rightful fight of social injustices against women and girls.
He confirmed that the presence of other First Ladies was a testament to their willingness to change the future of women and girls in Africa. He commended the move, noting that no matter the situation, rape, teenage pregnancy and all forms of discrimination against women should stop.
President Bio also said that men who raped and put any form of violence against women and girls had no place in society, assuring that the laws of Sierra Leone would ensure that a single rape became the last rape.
“My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society and also any man who rapes will be jailed forever, so that a single rape becomes the last rape,” he said.
He reiterated that when a child was forced into early marriage or raped, that would almost end their education, adding that that would bring unemployment and make life very difficult for them as they grow old in society. He therefore called on everyone to help in the fight to restore the pride and dignity of women and girls.
Your Excellencies, the First Ladies of sister states
Ministers of Government,
Members of Diplomatic and Consular Corps,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
I welcome each and every one of you, our esteemed dignitaries. Your presence here is testament to your commitment to join others in making history. It is a commitment that will change the future for millions of women and their children yet unborn. It is a commitment that will change outcomes for millions of our girls. I join the first lady and the people of Sierra Leone therefore in warmly welcoming you and thanking you for your historic commitment and presence in Sierra Leone for the launch of this initiative.
But I am torn in between emotions this morning. How does one talk about an issue that rends the heart, perturbs the mind, and beggars’ belief? How does one even begin to understand the situation of child victims of rape and exploitation: their helplessness, their pain, their fears, and the sheer horror of their experiences? How does one talk about this as the father of a three-year old daughter and a President of a country all at once? Can we even justify this to our individual consciences or to our collective national conscience? As a man raised by strong women, I believe every man should stand to make women strong.
“Hands Off Our Girls!” “Ne touche pas nos filles’! Öona gi the gial pikin dem chance.
The message is clear and trenchant. Whatever the motivation; Whatever the justification; whatever the traditional or cultural reasoning or practice; whatever the religious rationale; whatever the economic pretext, CHILD MARRIAGE IS WRONG AND
IT MUST END;
THE BRUTAL RAPE OF OUR GIRLS IS INHUMANE AND UNCONSCIONABLE AND IT MUST END;
CHILD PROSTITUTION IS A BLOT ON OUR NATIONAL CONSCIENCE AND WE MUST END IT;
GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE IS UNDIGNIFIED AND WRONG AND WE MUST END IT;
DISCRIMINATORY PRACTICES AND ACTIONS AGAINST OUR GIRLS MUST END;
MEN MUST TAKE PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY FOR TEENAGE PREGNANCY AND END IT.
We have a moral and constitutional right to protect the girl child and to change her outcomes. It is ultimately good for our communities, our societies, and for our nation and our sub-region as a whole.
As a nation and as a region, we must be inspired to change that which is wrong about our societies. We cannot achieve our goal of sustainable human capital development by discriminating against and summarily removing half of our population from schools and giving their hands in marriage, willy-nilly. Let us reduce this to a simple argument. By marrying off your girl child, you automatically terminate your child’s education. The net impact of that selfish decision is that one of our valuable citizens drops out of school. That girl child with a low level of education may remain unemployed or work for very little pay, if she ever does. With low income levels, she is most likely to live in poor housing and not have sufficient income to sustain a decent life. She may have multiple children and she may be prone to the possibility of child birth complications including fistula that may need significant medical intervention. Her children may have low health outcomes. Ponder the consequences of the action for marrying off your girl child for a moment then? A simple and often selfish decision has implications for our communities and for our national economies as a whole. By deliberately relegating half of our population to the lowest rungs of our society, we burden our communities and we burden our nation. We also forestall our national development. That decision deprives the nation of a valuable human resource. It creates or compounds maternal health issues, nutritional outcomes, and mental health and social status problems within our society. There is a huge economic and social cost to the nation. Our girls are not objects to be bartered away cheaply to comfort men in their beds; our girls are not brides. Our girls are Sierra Leoneans who deserve and must be given an equal opportunity to be all they can be.
A month ago, I was extremely gratified when the leading candidates in the Basic Education School certificate examinations were girls. Throughout the country, from Kenema to Makeni; from Kabala to Magburaka, hundreds of thousands of young girls lined up the streets and stadiums. In their determined and steely eyes; in their voices, I heard courage and I heard hope that my government will stand up for them and give them a chance. For the first lady of Sierra Leone, my wife, this campaign to end child marriage is more than a mission. It speaks directly to our national values and our national development priorities.
I recoil in anger and thinly suppressed rage whenever I have heard broadcasts or read stories about fully grown, adult men who violently rape and batter young girls. What kind of a man are you who rapes a 5 year old child? What kind of a man are you who rapes and sodomizes a 10 year old child? Our society has no place for such bestial depravity. I have called for heavy penalties and tougher sentencing laws that will ensure that each rape becomes the last rape. A rape must be the very last time that person walks this earth freely; each rape should become the last time the society or community hears about that person; each rape becomes the last act of a perverted beast who has no place among normal Sierra Leoneans who are focused on crafting a future for all Sierra Leoneans. The laws of our country should be applied fully and without mercy.
Child prostitution and teenage pregnancy are wrong and destructive. Children are children whether they are yours or whether they are out on the streets; they are not grown-up adult women. Men who pay for abusing children are no better than rapists. Men who use their social standing and money to force children into sexual encounters are no better than rapists.
Men who inflict random and often irrational acts of violence on women have no place in our society. There could be no justification for gender-based violence. You do not become more of a man for beating up a woman no matter what the motive is or whether it is to satisfy some primordial and base masculine instinct. I could go on about why we should keep our hands off our girls but I would be pre-empting the engagements and views that will be expressed on this issue over the next two days. I intend to listen, be informed, and be ready to act to protect our girl children and their future and work with my colleague leaders in the sub-region to push forward for this common agenda.
As a government, we have started work on these issues by overhauling and strengthening national laws and policies for the protection of children in general and girls in particular. The Ministry of Social Welfare, gender, and Children’s Affairs is finalizing a comprehensive review of a Sexual Offences Act. The cabinet and I expect to act on a final version that will be ready for the legislature. We expect ratification of stiffer and uncompromising consequences for persons who commit sexual offences in Sierra Leone.
In our public engagements, the First Lady and I have advocated strongly for the protection of the girl child from early marriage and other discriminatory practices. Her great work gives greater regional visibility to this campaign. As a government, it is my considered view that we should be deliberate and purposeful about how we create a national advocacy framework. We should fully and critically look at every issue, deficiencies or deficits in applicable laws, identify stakeholders or stakeholder networks, plan a comprehensive programme of engagement and action, and implement well thought-out action plans with a close eye on evidence.
Inter-sectoral collaboration, say among the Ministry of Social Welfare, gender and Children’s Affairs, The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, The Police within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other security sector and civil education agencies, is critical in a coordinated push back at the motives (economic or otherwise) and attitudes (cultural or social) that are used for justifying these discriminatory and unjustifiable acts against our girl child. As a government, we will therefore fully support community-based and national initiatives and campaigns for the rights of the girl-child.
As a government, we are looking at enriching and deeply engaging our development partners and civil society organizations especially because our objectives coalesce and we all wish for the same outcomes – the protection of our girls and ensuring that we remove barriers that prevent their full participation in our national polity and development. We also look to fully engage international organizations that work to prevent child trafficking and advocate for the rights of the girl child. The pathway forward, to our mind, is in cooperation and continuous engagement with one another.
Our fight is going to be robust and sustained. We have devised a tripartite approach. First, there is political commitment and support at the highest levels from my office and championed by the First Lady. The First Lady has also built a solid coalition of partners across the region as you can see here today. So there is significant buy-in. Second, we want our laws and governance institutions to stay fully engaged in not only addressing deficits in law and policy but in enforcing all such laws and policies without fear or favour. Thirdly, we believe that advocacy and continuous civic education will change the minds of persons who are stuck in old ways of thinking about this problem that has real implications for human lives and for our communities and nation as a whole. We should continue reminding one another why we should keep our hands off our girls. We should keep reminding one another why we must protect our girls.
I thank everyone present and I look forward to the outcome of this ground-breaking and highly commendable national and regional initiative.
Right now, countries around the world are facing a range of risks that threaten their stability, from rising environmental crises to deepening inequality and economic pressures. It’s also a time of brilliant possibilities. The hope and momentum for advancing women’s full and equal political participation have never been stronger.
Simply put, when women lead equally (as men) in the political arena, it makes for stronger decision-making and more representative governance. Women in politics work across party lines, even in the most politically combative environments, and champion issues such as parental leave and gender equality laws that strengthen communities now and for generations to come.
On International Day of Democracy, 15 September 2018, we are shining a spotlight on four countries that have stepped it up for gender equality in politics, and women leaders who are speaking up about what needs to be done to sustain the gains.
Earlier this month, women were elected to 61 per cent of seats in the Rwandan Parliament, making Rwanda the top country for women in politics.
Recently, UN Women spoke to Rwandan women leaders about the challenges that remain and what it would take to sustain these hard-won gains.
To counter this narrative and boost women’s leadership skills, UN Women and UN partners in Rwanda supported leadership training for women leading up to the parliamentary elections in early September.
Following the nationwide local elections in 2017, women occupy 41 per cent of posts at the federal, provincial and national levels of government in Nepal. Furthermore, more than 6,500 Dalit women, women of the lowest caste group in some South Asian countries, are among the more than 14,000 female elected representatives.
Ek Maya is one of 11 women elected to chairpersons of rural municipalities. She is now Vice Chair of Khajura Rural Municipality, and on one recent visit to her office, she was seen busy finalizing the new fiscal year budget and policy plans for the Municipality.
Although she looks forward to serving her community, Ek Maya points out that many challenges remain for women in politics: “Our society is not used to women leaders. When male leaders say something, people clap but when female leaders say the same thing, people laugh. We, the female leaders, now need more support from all sectors to prove ourselves.”
In the 2015 election cycle in Guatemala, the first openly lesbian member of Congress, Sandra Moran, and Irlanda Pop, the only indigenous mayor, were elected.
“Political violence against women is rarely discussed or recognized, but it exists, and there are no specific laws against it yet. We are proposing a law to address political violence, and it will include sexual harassment, discrimination, lower salaries and even the treatment of a female candidate or politician,” said Moran during a recent conversation with UN Women.
Leadership by these women is important for inspiring the next generation of diverse, empowered women leaders in Guatemala. Pop says, “People voted for me because they wanted to see change…Girls and young women are the future of Guatemala. Everything is possible if they set their mind and prepare.”
Following the May 2018 elections, women now make up 47 per cent of the local council positions in Tunisia. The dramatic increase in women members is the result of a 2016 electoral law that included the principles of parity and alternation between men and women on candidate lists for all elections.
It also took a lot of efforts to raise voter awareness and countering attitudes that traditionally did not back women’s leadership in politics.
In May, Ichrak Rhouma was elected to the Sidi Hassine Council in Tunis, the capital city. Prior to running for office, Rhouma attended a training on local governance and media relations. Rhouma says that the training “allowed us to deepen our knowledge on women's rights in general, but also to learn new concepts such as gender-sensitive budgeting.”
However, efforts to advance gender equality in politics must extend beyond elections. “Now that we have this high number of elected women in local and regional councils, we hope to continue supporting them with targeted training to help them succeed in their mission,” says Nejma Ben Kheher, Project Officer at the Tunisian League of Women Voters.
Tunisia is not alone in its challenges and gains in the Arab States region. In its highly anticipated 2018 elections, Lebanon saw a record number of women on the ballot. An unprecedented 113 women registered as candidates, and 86 of them made it to candidate lists. This was a whopping increase from 2009, when only 12 women candidates had registered.
In the May elections, only six women were finally elected to Parliament, reflecting hard-won victories, but also the long road ahead for women candidates.
Paula Yaacoubian, one of the registered candidates, and the only woman from civil society to be elected to the Parliament, said: “This year women themselves took the initiative to participate as candidates, to push things forward,” adding that without a specific quota for women and with the prevailing attitudes that prefer male candidates, women didn’t make it to all party lists.