Women in Sierra Leone stand to enjoy unprecedented rights under new laws making wife-beating a criminal offence, allowing women to inherit property, and protecting young women against forced marriage.
One human rights coalition said the three laws, enacted by Sierra Leone’s parliament 14 June, will “help to radically improve the legal position of women in Sierra Leone.” In a communique the Taskforce on Gender Bills said, “Until now the issue of redress for injustices committed against women especially in the domestic realm has been an uphill task because of the inadequacies of the law.”
In the past women had no chance of justice if their husbands abused them, experts said. Generally, such matters have been kept in the family or at most presented to a local traditional leader.
“The new law gives tools to police and family support units to take the necessary steps [to go after offenders],” said Tania Bernath, a researcher with Amnesty International. “If women know they have these tools they are more likely to bring domestic violence cases.”
A women’s rights expert in Sierra Leone said given the stigma attached to bringing attention to domestic violence, grassroots organisations are prepared to support women in seeking protection under the law.
“People have this idea that domestic violence is a private, family matter that should not be taken into the public domain,” said Jebbeh Forster of the UN development fund for women, UNIFEM. Local women’s groups can provide the backing women need as these laws are implemented, she said.
The definition of domestic violence in the new law is broad. It includes “physical or sexual abuse, economic abuse, emotional, verbal or psychological abuse, harassment, conduct that harms, endangers the safety, health or well-being of another person or undermines the privacy and dignity of another person.”
A member of the Sierra Leonean group ‘50/50,’ which works to increase women’s influence in public policy, said the laws are likely to encourage women to be active in the political domain.
“These laws will give women confidence,” 50/50 programme coordinator Christiana Wilson told IRIN. “If women are not confident enough, they will not come out for political positions. Women can now say, ‘I’m somebody. My husband cannot just beat me up. I am somebody - and why don’t I go for even more?’”
Wilson said the act giving women inheritance rights in marriage are crucial to women’s empowerment. “Women here are generally poor,” she said. The law “will bring women access to wealth which is a very important factor in getting political positions.”
Amnesty International said in a statement, “The inheritance law ensures that throughout Sierra Leone women have access to the property they are rightfully entitled to when their husband dies, without interference from extended family members.”
The third act, calling for the registration of customary marriages, introduces a minimum age of 18 years for such marriages and calls for the consent of both parties.