Sierra Leone’s parliament unanimously passed a bill that would have legalised abortion up to 12 weeks and also up to 24 weeks in cases of rape, incest, and foetal impairment. This legislation, it is important to add, would enable women to have access to procedures that in many cases can save lives. Unfortunately President Ernest Bai Koroma has vetoed the prospective law, demanding that the bill should be put to a referendum. As for now the fight for women’s reproductive rights in this area goes on.
Sierra Leone is often not spoken about in the Western media and because of this many of us are ignorant of what is going on the country, especially in the context of women’s rights. As with this abortion law, women are systematically discriminated against in almost every walk of life; in education, heath care, employment etc., women are treated as second-class citizens. This institutionalised sexism is manifest in programmes like the Free Healthcare Initiative which often results in women being proscribed medication that they cannot then pay for as it is often the case that men in Sierra Leone control the household finances.
Another aspect of women’s rights that has gained notoriety in recent years is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). In Sierra Leone 88% of women have undergone FGM, which is an incomprehensibly large number, but thankfully there is growing opposition to the practice and social attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. In my mind there is no one thing that is symbolic of patriarchal oppression than FGM as its sole purpose is to make sex totally devoid of pleasure for women, whilst leaving men unaffected.
As well as this barbaric social ‘custom’, women are also treated poorly in regards to family life. Wife-beating is not only common, but is an accepted part of marriage, and although domestic violence is a criminal offence, as of 2007 (better late than never), men who are accused of the crime are rarely prosecuted. Furthermore marital rape is seen as an accepted part of marriage, despite also being a criminal offence, and in many situations women who have been raped are pressurised by their communities to marry their rapist.
One of the criticisms of government responses to the plight of women is that these programmes often lack resources and therefore have no real impact. This goes to the key reason as to why women in under-developed countries often have no rights: governments are not able to provide women with public services or employment opportunities that give women financial independence. It is only through economic advancement that women shall be truly empowered and able to live in Sierra Leone without being treated as second class citizens.
Economic advancement can only take place through massive state-intervention in the economy and the building of socialism to channel the benefits of economic growth to all the workers and not just for a political elite. Although we can help people in developing countries through charity, it does not get to the root cause as to why these people are oppressed, both socially and economically. Only through abolishing capitalism will women be truly equal. Legislative reforms to give women addition rights like abortion are welcome but capitalism is the root of so many societal problems which often disproportionately impact women.