Sierra Leone has passed what has been described as a “ground-breaking” law which states that 30% of public and private jobs must be reserved for women, reported bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa on January 21st.

Under the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE), women also benefit from ringfenced senior positions in the workplace, at least 14-weeks of maternity leave, and equal access to bank credit and training opportunities.

There are harsh repercussions for employers who do not stick to the new gender ratios, including hefty fines of £2,000 ($2,500), and even potential prison time for institutions like banks that do not give women fair access to financial support for starting their own businesses, for example.

President Julius Maada Bio apologised to women for their poor treatment in the past: “For so long we haven’t been fair to you,” he said.  The minister of gender and children’s affairs, Manty Tarawalli, told the BBC‘s Newsday radio programme that women had been “crying” out “for years” for this change.  “It means a lot to women in Sierra Leone,” she said, adding that no other sub-Saharan African country had passed such a law.

Ms Tarawalli said the move was “important” but that “more steps will have to be taken before the country can say fairness has been achieved across the genders”.  Discrimination against women in the workplace is a “big issue,” according to the minister, and the new law will “change the status quo,” she said.  For Sierra Leone to become a middle-income country it must engage the 52% of the population who are women in the economy, she added.

Prior to the law, the United Nations Population Fund, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA), said that “progress has been made in expanding opportunities for women and girls” but warned that “gender inequality and denial of women’s rights are still prevalent at all levels in Sierra Leonean society”.  Specifically the UNFPA in Sierra Leone is “working to end unmet need for family planning; end preventable maternal deaths; and end gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls.”

As for gender equality in the continent as a whole, UN Women says that progress has been made, but “the majority of women work in insecure, poorly paid jobs, with few opportunities for advancement”.  UN Women is the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, supporting UN Member States as they set global standards for achieving gender equality, and working with governments and civil society to design laws, policies, programmes and services needed to ensure that the standards are effectively implemented and truly benefit women and girls worldwide.   (bbc.co.uk 21/1)

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in its Global Gender Gap Report published in July 2022, two African countries – Namibia and Rwanda – feature in the top ten.  The index demonstrates to what extent a country has closed its gender gap.  No country has done so completely although the top country, Iceland, is calculated to have achieved a roughly 90.8% closure of its gender gap. Rwanda, in sixth position in the list, achieved a score of 81.1% while Namibia, in eighth place scored 80.7%. 

At the other end of the scale, five African countries featured in the bottom ten – Benin, Algeria, Mali, Chad and DR Congo.  DR Congo, with around 57.5% gender equality, was ahead of only Pakistan and Afghanistan in the global index.  Sierra Leone came 109th out of the 146 countries covered by the index, with a score of 67.2%, just below the global average of 68.1%.

The report observed that progress towards closing the gender gap had stalled in most countries of the world in the last year. Only about half of those included in the list had made any progress at all in closing the gender gap and twelve countries were reckoned to have reversed their progress between the March 2021 report and this one.  Unfortunately the worst offenders included three African countries – Algeria (60.2%, -3 percentage points), Malawi (63.2%, -3.9 percentage points) and Benin (61.2%, -4.1 percentage points) have declined the most over the last year, the report said.  On the other hand Kenya was one of the top performers between 2021 and 2022 going up to 72.9%, a rise of 3.7% in a year.

In 2021 the WEF said that at the current pace of change, gender gaps would potentially be closed in 52.1 years in Western Europe, 61.5 years in North America, and 68.9 years in Latin America and the Caribbean. In all other regions it will take over 100 years to close the gender gap, including 121.7 years in Sub-Saharan Africa and 142.4 years in the Middle East and North Africa. 

The index is also broken down into four sub-indexes – Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. 

In terms of political empowerment, only 12 countries in the world achieve more than 50% empowerment for women, including Rwanda (56.3%) and South Africa (50.2%).  Sierra Leone is well down the list in 131st position with currently just 8.3% political empowerment (some way off the 30% figure intended under its new law).  However the country does somewhat better on the other indices, for example in terms of economic participation and opportunity it lies in 56th position globally with a reported 71.8% parity between men and women.  With the new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment law now in place, Sierra Leone can expect to find itself a few places higher in the 2023 index!

For further information about the Africa Research Bulletin:

Economic, Financial and Technical Series: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/14676346

Political, Social and Cultural Series: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/1467825x