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Women's Rights

Women’s rights are enshrined in many international and regional instruments to which most governments are committed, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

Here are some brief notes on what these various conventions / charters have to say about equality, and the right to education; and people’s rights within marriage, including their rights over their children and property:

  • Parties to CEDAW shall take all appropriate measures: “to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women” (Article 5a) and to “eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, that they participate in and benefit from rural development”. (Article 14)
  • They should “have access to adequate health care facilities, including information, counselling and services in family planning” and “obtain all types of training and education, formal and non-formal, including that relating to functional literacy” (ibid).
  • “Everyone has the right to education” (UDHR, Article 26).

  • “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (UDHR, Article 16).

  • Parties to CEDAW shall “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations”. This includes: the “right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent” and “to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights” and “the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property” “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect” (Article 16).

Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone (one of our target countries), women’s rights are also enshrined in the National Constitution and in legislation, and there is a Government Department with specific responsibility for gender. However, there is an enormous gulf between official responsibilities and actual practice, especially in rural areas where women face many difficulties, not least structural discrimination under Customary Law.

Moreover, even where a woman knows her rights there is very little redress through the courts: Sierra Leone's criminal justice system remains largely dysfunctional due to a lack of financial and human resources and discrimination by chiefs and local court officials.

A 2005 report by Amnesty International* noted that:

“Women face discrimination and inequality in laws, in custom, and in rulings by Chiefs and Local Court officials primarily in marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property. The consequences are devastating for women as it further entrenches many into poverty, forces some to stay in violent relationships, contributes to homelessness, and severely compromises women’s ability to properly care for themselves, and their children. Not only are laws that relate to matters in the domestic setting discriminatory, but there exists little protection in the law against gender based violence.”

Women from one our learning circles in Sierra Leone. Women

For Sierra Leone to become more egalitarian and democratic, more resources will need to go into, not just the judiciary, the police, and other agencies of state (which is happening), but also into public information programmes and community-based initiatives to ensure that the law and people’s rights are more widely understood and respected, and that priorities and attitudes -- and particularly men’s attitudes -- begin to change.

Raising awareness and changing public attitudes are two of the main objectives of our work. The photo to the right shows members of one of our learning circles in Sierra Leone emerging from one of their meetings, some carrying their folders of notes on their heads.

* ‘No one to turn to: Women’s lack of access to justice in Sierra Leone’ (Dec 2005)