SPEECH BY HONOURABLE DR. SYLVIA OLAYINKA BLYDEN, MINISTER OF SOCIAL WELFARE, GENDER & CHILDREN’S AFFAIRS IN THE PRESIDENTIAL CABINET OF THE REPUBLIC OF SIERRA LEONE
TO THE 6TH MINISTERIAL CONFERENCE ON WOMEN’S ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF OIC MEMBER STATES
ON 3RD NOVEMBER 2016 AT THE CONRAD CONFERENCE HALL, ISTANBUL
Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim Alhamdu lillahi Rabbil alamin
Members of the 4th Estate,
Allow me to stand on the existing protocols as I bring you greetings from His Excellency the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, the Government and People of Sierra Leone especially the Women of Sierra Leone. We extend warm felicitations to His Excellency the President of the Republic of Turkey H.E. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the female minister Dr. Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya and all the people of this great Turkish nation. We extend exact same felicitations to the Secretary General of the OIC and want to use this opportunity to once again thank OIC for the generous financial contribution they sent to assist our subregion to end the dreadful Ebola Outbreak. The Ebola outbreak is now over with the assistance of friends like the OIC but the social and economic impact it has created, is still being felt and more so for our women.
Under the leadership of H.E. President Koroma, the promotion and protection of Sierra Leone women remains a priority but the Ebola crisis has negatively affected the status of our service to our women. Therefore, the essence and theme of this conference, THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN OIC MEMBER STATES IN LIGHT OF THE CURRENT CHALLENGES, resonates well with the current situation in which Sierra Leone women find themselves.
Women of Sierra Leone stand challenged by the after-effects of the Ebola outbreak but though challenged, we remain resilient because we are also fortunate to be under the leadership of an awesome Head of State, under whom we are striving forward. Gender sensitivity, mainstreaming and empowerment of women has been growing in leaps and bounds under President Koroma who is arguably the greatest gender-sensitive leader in Sierra Leone’s history. With strategic decisions and calculated steps, the APC-led government of Sierra Leone has reduced the perception of women being of lesser value than men.
I note the time limitation given to each Member State to deliver Statements and out of respect for the other speakers waiting to speak, I will touch on only a few success stories especially with respect to empowering our girls who are our future women.
Sierra Leone believes in empowering our girls to reach their fullest possible potentials as productive women in the future of Sierra Leone. We believe we can only grow and be a productive society when our women and our men are treated equally in all respects including within the Family. This is why we have a whole pillar on Gender issues out of the 8 pillars upon which Sierra Leone carries out its Agenda for Prosperity.
Our Pillar 8 is given high importance and is in addition to Sierra Leone already signing up to virtually all the Major International Treaties on Protecting and Promoting women, such as CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol. In addition, we have enacted very key Gender and Women’s Rights Laws such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage & Divorce Act, the Devolution of Estates Act and the Sexual Offences Act. We also have the Child Rights Act with some provisions specifically towards protecting the Girl Child.
WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP & KEY DECISION-MAKING POSITIONS
Sierra Leone, especially under the current President, H.E. President Koroma, has had women elected and appointed to very high offices. For eight years in a row between 2008 to 2015, the Third Arm of Government, the Judiciary, was headed by a woman as Chief Justice. Simultaneous to having a female C.J., there were also a high percentage of women sitting as majority in the highest constitutional court as well as many of the lower tiers of Judicary. We also became the first country in our subregional part of Africa, to appoint a woman as Brigadier General in our Armed Forces.
Sierra Leone believes that the effect of empowering and elevating our women serves to inspire our girls to dream big so President Koroma deliberately empowers women; sometimes using affirmative action to push through his vision like when he grants his APC Party symbol to women wishing to contest in safe seats that his party is sure to win. This was most marked in his Home City of Makeni where his affirmative action has ensured we now have a female Mayor and female Deputy Mayor of that largest Provincial City.
The President’s Cabinet can now boast of eleven women as Ministers for the first time in the History of Sierra Leone; many of these female ministers serve in important ministries like Foreign Affairs, Health, Education, Agriculture, Infrastructure, Social Welfare, Lands, Marine Resources and Political Affairs. I must add that not only am I one of the female members of the Cabinet but I, like other women before me, have also been appointed by the President to seat on Sierra Leone’s highest National Security Council wherein sensitive decisions pertaining to national security are taken under the chairmanship of His Excellency the President.
We have women serving in many other key positions as Permanent Secretaries, Board Chairpersons, Managing Directors, Executive Directors and infact, the noted ‘General’ positions of Auditor-General, Solicitor-General, Revenue Commissioner-General and Adminsitrator & Registrar-General are all held by capable women appointed by our gender-sensitive President.
Sierra Leone is also fortunate to have a First Lady, Madam Sia Nyama Koroma, who is a living example of a woman’s positive role in the development of an OIC member state which itself, is a constant theme of our OIC Women Ministerial sessions. As one of our top role models, First Lady Sia Koroma does not only inspire women and girls but her positive influence is reflected in many of her husband’s decisions such as the universal free health care for all pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under 5 years age.
H.E. President Koroma’s decision to implement afore-mentioned free health care scheme was unprecedented and dramatically reduced maternal and infant morbidity and mortality rates. Sadly, the Ebola Crisis has retrogressed strides in this area because many citizens had stayed away from seeking non-Ebola medical care because, to them, hospitals and clinics had become ‘avoidable’ symbols of Ebola devastation and deaths during the crisis.
Therefore, our maternal and infant care successes plummeted but H.E. President Koroma’s ongoing Post-Ebola Recovery programmes are specifically targeting areas so as to result in an anticipated return to pre-Ebola upwards strides in combating not only maternal morbidity and mortality but also the factors affecting sexual, reproductive and general health of our female citizens.
These Presidential Priorities include training more skilled Healthcare Workers especially Birth Attendants. They also include building more hospitals and clinics. Just yesterday November 2nd 2016, President Koroma turned sods for building of three major tertiary hospitals to serve the growing population in our capital city. These will be added to many new clinics and hospitals being built simultaneously in other provincial parts of the country; many of them with a focus on servicing women’s health issues as well as paediatric services.
Education for women and girls continue to remain a priority in Sierra Leone. So much has been achieved but for lack of time, let me touch on only a few.
All girls in Sierra Leone enjoy free school education from primary school until into part of their secondary schooling. As a result of the success of this policy, we now have not only gender-parity at enrollment but in many places, more girls are enrolled into primary schools than boys. However, enrolling girls is not our only focus but another key objective is for our girls to be able to complete school and reach their full potential under the best possible conditions including protecting their psychosocial welfare to ensure they can complete school and go into tertiary education.
At the tertiary levels including for those enrolled into colleges and universities, all girls and women enjoy totally free tuition as long as they get enrolled into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines. Had it not been for the devastating effect of the Ebola outbreak on our economy, we would have rolled out totally free education for all our women and girls in every single discipline.
However, despite the ravage of the Ebola crisis, His Excellency President Koroma has not relented in pushing his Gender Policies in Education and Health including ensuring our girls complete school in good frame of mind and with high self-confidence.
In that direction, one of the most highly successful policies which we implemented during the Ebola crisis was the needful protection of our school girls who unfortunately fell pregnant. Well documented taunts of pregnant girls by their peers in classrooms tend to traumatize the girls and make them decide not to continue school so as to avoid the taunts from classmates who can be quite hurtful in their choice of words used to taunt peers who fall pregnant. Pregnancy itself is a state that is already not normal for a female mind and body without the additional trauma of peer taunts. To protect our pregnant girls from psychological trauma borne out of peer taunts and the like, the Government took our visibly pregnant girls out of conventional classrooms and instead allowed them to attend specially opened classes where they studied with other pregnant girls – safe from hurtful taunts and with daily counseling from trained psycho-social officials. Upon safely delivering their babies, the girls are allowed back into normal classes to join their peers.
The outcome has been marvelous. A comparison, by percentage, of what used to be the drop-out rate amongst pregnant girls before we implemented the Alternative Classrooms option indicates we have been hugely successful in our efforts to provide alternatives to dropping out – including specialized and focused counseling of our pregnant girls. So more and more girls now go back to normal classrooms after delivering babies; usually with a high level of self-confidence built up from the counseling at the specialized schools.
In January this year, when we started the new academic year, we had almost 9,000 girls eagerly going back to school having safely delivered babies and this trend continued with almost 6,000 more safely-delivered schoolgirls going back to continue their schooling in this new semester that opened in September. This is a tremendous success story that the country remains proud of.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
This is of high importance as evidenced in specially enacted Laws against not only Domestic Violence but also Sexual & Gender-based Violence. Any female who complains of sexual violence is automatically entitled to free health care coordinated by the Ministry of Health & Sanitation and free psycho-social counseling from Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender & Children’s Affairs.
Female Circumcision (otherwise termed FGM) is a highly contentious issue because it is deeply ingrained in our traditions and deeply held beliefs but under the astute guidance of the President, we have now ensured the practitioners themselves are undergoing very active sensitization on the rights of the Girl Child under the age of 18 years. So all girls are now effectively to be protected from FGM whilst, though we sensitize adult women on the noted de-merits of FGM, but we still allow the adult women the choice to do what they want with their bodies. So adult women ready for marriage, who wish to undergo the circumcision procedure of their own volition and out of their deeply held traditional beliefs, are not hindered from doing so. They can however only do so when they have reached the age of 18 years.
Child Marriage is another shameful scourge on the face of OIC countries and remains one of the biggest challenges recognized by the African Union against girls reaching their full potentials in education and other areas. Combating child marriage is now under the full beam of Sierra Leone government with enacted laws protecting girls from being married off involuntarily, now enforced whenever such cases come up. Loopholes in laws which allow a parent or judicial officer to allow a child under the age of 18 years to get married, are now being studied with a view to seal them shut.
Sierra Leone believes that decisions on both the issues of Female Circumcision and Child Marriage can only be taken by sufficiently matured women above the age of 18 years. So we vehemently protect our girls who are our future productive women, from marriage or circumcision. Any citizen under the age of 18 years cannot be considered as having given consent as such a citizen is a girl to be protected and not a woman with choice.
Still on combating Violence Against Women, as I speak, my Ministry’s staff back home are gearing up for this year’s 16 DAYS OF ACTIVISM against Sexual and Gender Based Violence which is due to run from November 25th to December 10th in many United Nations countries around the world. Sierra Leone takes the matter of violence against women with a lot of seriousness and in May this year at Sierra Leone’s first ever International Women’s Conference, the Head of State declared that Violence against a single woman is violence against the entire State. Sierra Leone is also amongst the very first countries in the world to develop a National Action Plan for the full implementation of the UN Resolution 1325 and subsequent gender resolutions including 1820.
Sierra Leone women are precious and whilst our journey for equality is continuing, we are assured that under the current leadership, our protection and promotion is assured.
Now, I cannot end without appreciating with much happiness, the excellent manner in which this 6th Ministerial Conference has been arranged and is ongoing. I want to pay tribute to the emotional speech delivered to us in here by H.E. President Erdoğan about the dastardly act of terrorists on July 15th this year. Also, the video documentary showed to us, of events of that fateful day, moved many of us to emotional tears. I join President Erdoğan to salute the martyrs especially the women of Turkey.
It is on that note of high respect and salutation to Turkish women that I want to close my statement by making an appeal on behalf of a Turkish lady married to a Sierra Leonean gentleman named David Dauda Junusa. Our brother unfortunately had a job teaching at an institution now linked to the main mastermind of the evil of July 15th. We perfectly understand the need for the State of Turkey to protect its citizens from a repeat of July 15 but we appeal for a case-by-case review of the affected foreigners instead of a wholesale deportation of all of them including Mr. Junusa.
We appeal against his deportation and the deportation of all our other African brothers married to Turkish ladies but who now find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having innocently worked at educational institutions linked to the dastardly terrorists of July 15th. Please, in the name of protecting sanctity of married families which is one of the running themes of our OIC women ministerial meetings, we appeal for the planned mass deportations to be carefully reviewed on a case by case basis. Our brother is happily married to a beautiful Turkish lady who already is missing him so much.
On that note, Mr. Chairman, I thank everyone for your attention and may the Almighty bless and continue to guide us all.
© Hon. Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
This Official Statement was released for public consumption by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender & Children’s Affairs.
New Englandville, Freetown.
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