Sierra Leone has passed what has been described as a “ground-breaking” law to improve women’s rights and empowerment.
President Julius Maada Bio had also tendered an apology to women for their poor treatment in the past: “For so long, we haven’t been fair to you,” he said.
The law states that 30% of public and private jobs must be reserved for women.
The Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs says women have been “crying” out “for years” for this change.
“It means a lot to women in Sierra Leone,” Manty Tarawalli told the press in a radio programme, adding that no other sub-Saharan African country had passed such a law.
The law lets girls still at school know “there are opportunities for them in Sierra Leone for employment for business” and for them to contribute to the economy, Ms Tarawalli said.
Under the new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE), women also benefit from ringfenced senior positions in the workplace, at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, equal access to bank credit and training opportunities.
There are harsh repercussions for employers who do not stick to the new gender ratios, including hefty fines of £2,000 ($2,500) and even potential prison time for institutions like banks that do not give women fair access to financial support. However, this will make it easier for women to start their businesses.
The government says the employment law will apply to businesses with more than 25 employees, but a final decision has yet to be made.
Ms Tarawalli said the move was “important” but that “more steps will have to be taken before the country can say fairness has been achieved across the genders”.
According to the minister, discrimination against women in the workplace is a “big issue,” and the new law will “change the status quo,” she said.
For Sierra Leone to become a middle-income country, it must engage the 52% of the population who are women in the economy, Ms Tarawalli added.
Before the law, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) said that “progress has been made in expanding opportunities for women and girls” but warned that “gender inequality and denial of women’s rights are still prevalent at all levels in Sierra Leonean society”.
As for gender equality in the continent, UN Women also says that progress has been made, but “the majority of women work in insecure, poorly paid jobs, with few opportunities for advancement”.