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:
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.”
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)