Capturing Women’s Voices for Sierra Leone’s Constitutional Review

14256849580_86e7e07ea1“It eats us up and makes our bodies to become sickly” said Baindu Momoh of Tailai Village, Nongowa Chiefdom in the Kenema District, describing the injustices women go through every day in their lives. “It is difficult, life is impossible and we are tired”. Baindu represents just one of millions of women in the rural areas of Sierra Leone and she was speaking to a team that was carefully set up by UN Women to capture the voices of women living in distinctive rural parts of the Eastern Province for the ongoing Constitutional Review process.
Baindu who is now convalescing from a motorbike accident along the bad roads in the area said she was abandoned by her family, all of her 11 brothers, at the Government Hospital for over three months and “they couldn’t even send me a penny to help pay my bills or support my children at home”. In tears, she recalled how she was withdrawn from school to support the education of her younger brothers who now control the vast plantation and big compound left behind by her late father. “And even when I managed to save my own money, they refused to let me build a room in our family compound and the burden of feeding, clothing educating and caring for my children is killing me” she added while tears of bitter and involuntary memories rolled down her cheeks as she spoke.
Baindu and her children were thrown out of her husband’s house when he decided to marry a new wife after a good harvest. “I do not have anywhere to complain” giving an account of her encounter with the local authorities when she tried to seek divorce and demand support from the now stowaway husband. The Chief, she said, asked her to pay back for everything the husband had done and provided for her including the dowry. It doesn’t get better, three months later the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police was unable to locate the husband to continue the payment of scheduled monthly allowances. Baindu feels helpless and says she wants “Papa Ernest” (referring to the President of the nation) to make laws that will force husbands to take care of their responsibilities; guarantee her access to an equal share of the property and wants “micro credit” to improve on her vegetable business.
There are many other stories like these that UN Women in close collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) recently captured from a weeklong mission to the remotest parts of the four regions of the country. The discussions were frank, spontaneous, emotional and informal but meticulously planned and executed. The purpose of this exercise was for each expert team facilitating the exercise to inform rural women of Sierra Leone about the constitutional review process, explain to them the contents of the 1991 Constitution and find out what changes the women would like to see in the new Constitution. The teams were made up of Parliamentarians, Legal Experts, MSWGCA policy makers and professional staff, representatives from the Human Rights Commission and the Constitutional Review Committee as well as umbrella Civil Society organizations working on gender equality, access to justice and women empowerment goals.
In the middle of June 2014, UN Women and the team of Expert Facilitators met with a total of 4,500 women. Like Baindu, their views and aspirations will be collated into a historic Women’s Charter that will be handed over to the Constitutional Review Committee and President Ernest Bai Koroma. The consultations with rural women on the constitutional review process were recommended by the women of Sierra Leone during the dissemination of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The women realise that the choices that they make in reviewing the constitution will have a direct impact on their lives and that of their children in relation to the future of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Sierra Leone.
For UN Women, this exercise will contribute towards its efforts and contributions in engendering the constitution, with the ultimate goal of entrenching gender equality and safeguarding women’s rights.