Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden OOR has been a fervent Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment activist for the last 30 years of her 51 years of existence. During this period, she has broken some significant glass ceilings that used to inhibit the advancement of Women in Sierra Leone.
In an exclusive interview with Sierraloaded in commemoration of International Women’s Day, Dr. Blyden spoke about the major challenges of women in Sierra Leone, her view of the GEWE Act 2022, and what it means for Women in Sierra Leone.
Read the former Sierra Leone minister of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children Affairs interview with us below:
What do you think are the major challenges for women in Sierra Leone?
That is a question that would require a whole Seminar to adequately address it. (SMILE). For example, are we speaking of challenges in healthcare or in accessing land or getting justice, or seeking education? Each of these has unique challenges posed for Women. However, I believe you may be asking about the challenges that inhibit the advancement of Women generally. Well, even that one requires quite a long response, but if I am to reply in summary then I will say that the major challenges are traditional and parochial beliefs about the place of a Woman in the home, in the community, and in the wider world. This includes the notion that any woman who raises her voice to argue with men or who puts pen to paper or finger to keyboard to dispute what the male-dominated society has ordained, will automatically be seen as an aberration. The biggest challenge is when the male-dominated society now devises ways and means to ‘cure’ the aberration. Such ‘cures’ include male egoistic driven solutions like explaining how such a Woman is mentally sick. When any Woman gets subjected to mockery and ridicule of her self-confidence in publicly challenging men, if such a Woman is not strong enough, she will kowtow, withdraw her stance and retrogress into a shell of her actual potential. In so doing, she loses the self-esteem and self-confidence required to contribute to the discourse. The end effect is that the community loses the fullest potential of 50% of the population who have been browbeaten into submission. To my mind, this is one of the biggest challenges facing Women in Sierra Leone. People don’t talk about it much but if we open up more about such inhibition of women then we can collectively work to eliminate a large portion of the obstacles to be overcome to enable Women to reach their fullest potential. Indeed if we are to harness the fullest potential of everyone in the population including every Woman, we have to work on eliminating the prejudice and outright biases borne of deep-seated traditional and parochial ingrained chauvinism and misogyny. The saddest aspect of this particular challenge is the one where Women have groomed themselves to self-hate themselves. They are taught to inhibit themselves. They are taught that any assertive Woman is an aberration. So instead of standing to emulate or defend a strong woman, you will have women teaming up with men to denigrate an ‘outspoken’ woman. Until the society of both Men and Women can recognize these prejudices and biases which are deployed to stop the general advancement of Women, the Cause of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment remains a mirage. Of course, there are many other challenges facing Women in various other sectors but this one of ingrained prejudices and biases cuts across.
What is your view of the GEWE Act? Do you think it is a good or bad one?
It is a very good start and I celebrate it. However, the contents of the final Act significantly got changed from the actual Bill sent to Parliament. The effect of the debates in Parliament was to produce a drastically changed Law. The changes are both positive and negative. On the positive side, the clumsy areas in the original Bill were neatened and processes to be followed and got better defined. However, on the negative side, the enforcement and empowerment processes were watered down. For example, the Bill was watered down so that the President is not forced by Law to maintain a 30% quota of Women in his Cabinet or amongst his appointees. That is such a huge disappointment as it means any President can announce an all-male Cabinet Minister and no Law exists to sanction him to appoint women. That aspect of change was sad. However, as an initial step, I do appreciate the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act. It is a great step forward on the journey toward empowerment and equity.
Do you think this act will impact positively on women in Sierra Leone?
Most definitely. Especially when placed in conjunction with the Public Elections Act of 2022 which seeks for a minimum of 30% of submitted nominated candidates for Elections to be women. It also has fantastic aspects like longer maternity leaves and the prohibition of sacking an employee simply because they got pregnant. The GEWE Act, I believe will also enhance the chances of more Women in middle and top-level management. And we all know more women in management means better management and by extension, a better Nation. So, YES, YES, YES, it will have an over-arching positive impact if implemented as it is currently written on paper.
Sierra Leone is celebrating its first Women’s Day since this act was signed. What does this mean for you as a woman and as for Women in Sierra Leone?
It means it is CELEBRATION TIME! (smile). It is a time to tap ourselves on the back and as we say in our local parlance, it is time to ‘tie our orjas tightly’ as we brace up to utilize the new Law that will take us to our rightful places. Yes, it’s celebration time. CELEBRATION TIME!!!!