EMERGING FROM CIVIL WAR, SIERRA LEONE FACES SERIOUS CHALLENGES IMPLEMENTING WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTION, EXPERT COMMITTEE TOLD

17 May 2007
WOM/1626

EMERGING FROM CIVIL WAR, SIERRA LEONE FACES SERIOUS CHALLENGES IMPLEMENTING WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTION, EXPERT COMMITTEE TOLD

17 May 2007
General Assembly
WOM/1626
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Committee on Elimination of

Discrimination against Women

777th & 778th Meetings (AM & PM)

EMERGING FROM CIVIL WAR, SIERRA LEONE FACES SERIOUS CHALLENGES IMPLEMENTING

WOMEN’S ANTI-DISCRIMINATION CONVENTION, EXPERT COMMITTEE TOLD

Sierra Leone ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1988 without reservation, but since it was emerging from an 11-year civil war that had destroyed most of the country’s social, economic and physical infrastructure and resulted in a breakdown of civil and political authority, it was only now able to report to the expert Committee that monitors compliance with that treaty, its delegation explained today. 

Presenting the country’s initial and second through fifth periodic reports, Memunatu Koroma, Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, said that rebuilding the country’s economic and social infrastructure to provide security and livelihood, while guaranteeing the promotion and protection of rights for its citizens, had been a daunting challenge.  Although it took a long time to meet the reporting obligations, successive Governments had demonstrated a commitment to implement the Convention through, among other measures, legal reforms, the “systematic and diligent” implementation of education policies to accelerate girls’ enrolment, and the development of a reproductive health policy.

Overall, however, the Government was facing “serious” challenges in implementing the Convention, she acknowledged.  Sierra Leone remained a male-dominated society.  Her Ministry received less than one per cent of the national budget, which was grossly inadequate.  The scarcity of resources and capacity impeded gender analysis and policy and programmatic interventions.  Human resource development was another “very big challenge” for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.  Traditional and cultural factors gave boys the priority when it came to education, and women still faced prejudice when competing for managerial positions in the workplace, and their low self-esteem did not help that situation. 

At the start of the dialogue, experts noted the promising national machinery and institutional framework, the good policy instruments and civil society involvement, all of which seemed to be a recipe for compliance with the Convention.  One expert said that, while all of that looked promising, the report had presented a less optimistic view, owing largely to a lack of financial, technical and human resources for implementation of policies and programmes.  Another reason cited for the weak implementation was the “competing” Government priorities.  She was concerned that gender equality and women’s advancement in Sierra Leone might not even be an objective of the Government.

Issues of health also dominated the exchange, particularly the high rate of maternal mortality and the practice known as female genital mutilation.  According to the report, Sierra Leone had one of the highest levels of maternal deaths in the world and, thus, reducing maternal mortality and morbidity was the thrust of the Government’s maternal health programme.  One expert, pleased at the Government’s plans to mobilize resources for that purpose, wanted to know whether it was setting benchmarks for reducing those figures.  She also urged a confidential investigation of every maternal death.  Problems of infrastructure, such as lack of transportation, insufficient availability of blood in hospitals, or inability to pay could readily be addressed and deaths could be averted. 

Another expert called female genital mutilation -- which was said to involve more than 90 per cent of the women in Sierra Leone -- “unacceptable violence” against women, under the Convention.  The Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, Dubravka Simonovic, said that the Committee had discussed the issue of female genital mutilation with non-governmental organizations, who said that it might be possible to make 18 the age of consent.  However, that practice at any age was a violation of women’s rights and was not in accordance with the Convention, she said, stressing, “Maybe you can save a child until age 18, but that will still be a violation of the Convention”.  The country could continue to educate, but prohibition should be a first step, and that prohibition should include all women, she said.

Property rights and laws and practices surrounding marriage were also preoccupying, as experts pressed the delegation to explain why the grounds for divorce were different for men as compared to women.  One expert, noting that the general law stated that a husband had a duty to maintain his wife, while the wife had a duty to do the household chores, said that that requirement, which was legally binding, stereotyped men and women.  She asked whether the Government had any plans to revise it.  She was also concerned about Islamic laws on the question of divorce, which “appear to be skewed very heavily in favour of the husband”, and wondered if the Government intended to discuss the issue with the elders. 

Also participating in Sierra Leone’s delegations were: Joe Robert Pemagbi, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations; Monfred M. Sesay, Ministry of Justice; Edward B. Magbity, Ministry of Health and Sanitation; Victoria Sulimani, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations; Isatu Kajue, Decentralization Secretariat; Pamela Williams, Ministry of Youth and Sport; Charles B. Vandi, Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs; Susan Sesay, Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs; and Sulay-Manah J. Kpukumu.

The Committee will meet again tomorrow, 18 May, at 10 a.m. to take up Vanuatu’s combined initial, second and third periodic report.

Background

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met today to consider the combined initial, second, third, fourth and fifth periodic report of Sierra Leone (document (CEDAW/C/SLE/5).

Presentation of Country Report

Heading Sierra Leone’s delegation was Memunatu Koroma, Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs of Sierra Leone.  Also participating were: Joe Robert Pemagbi, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations; Monfred M. Sesay, Ministry of Justice; Edward B. Magbity, Ministry of Health and Sanitation; Victoria Sulimani, First Secretary, Permanent Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations; Isatu Kajue, Decentralization Secretariat; Pamela Williams, Ministry of Youth and Sport; Charles B. Vandi, Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs; Susan Sesay, Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs; and Sulay-Manah J. Kpukumu.

Presenting the report, MEMUNATU KOROMA, Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs of Sierra Leone, acknowledged the advocacy role played by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in preparing the report, as well as that of the Government itself and the whole international community.  The Ministry also acknowledged the financial and technical support it received from the United Nations country team in Sierra Leone.  With the support of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) Anglophone West Africa Regional Office, a proposal was articulated for addressing the peculiar constraints and challenges of Sierra Leone in the preparation of the combined periodic report.  The United Nations continued to provide financial and technical support throughout the process.

She reminded the Committee that Sierra Leone was emerging from an 11-year civil war, which destroyed most of the country’s social, economic and physical infrastructure and resulted in a breakdown of civil and political authority.  Rebuilding the country’s economic and social infrastructure to provide security and livelihood, while guaranteeing the promotion and protection of rights for its citizens, had been a daunting challenge.  Sierra Leone had ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women on 11 November 1988 without reservation, obligating it to submit an initial report to the Committee one year later and subsequent reports every four years thereafter.  Although it took a long time for Sierra Lone to meet its reporting obligations, successive Governments had demonstrated the country’s commitment to implement the Convention’s provisions through policies and other measures. 

She said that it was in growing recognition of the treaty’s importance to women’s empowerment that, in 1988, the Government set up a Women’s Bureau to coordinate issues relating to women’s development.  In 1993, a gender desk was established in the office of the Chairman and Head of State of the then National Provision Ruling Council at State House to coordinate women’s issues in development activities.  Following the return to democratic civilian rule in 1996, the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs was established as the institutional hub to promote women’s empowerment.  In 1997, however, the constitutionally elected Government had been overthrown and forced into exile.  Following its restoration in 1998, the Government had merged the then Ministry of Social Welfare and the Gender and Children’s Affairs Ministry to form the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.

Despite the genuine constraints encountered by Sierra Leone in reporting on the Convention’s implementation as a result of the war, the country had not been absolved of its reporting obligations nor given a waiver on reporting, she noted.  On the contrary, it was happy that the United Nations had employed every opportunity to remind and support the country in preparing the report.  Her Ministry had been undertaking a series of activities, including the formulation of two policies –- one on gender mainstreaming and the other on the advancement of women, which had been adopted by the Parliament in 2000.  The following measures, among others, had been undertaken:  production of an abridged version of the operative articles of the Convention in 2002; consultation and sensitization workshop on the treaty for key stakeholders, including parliamentarians and public and private sector representatives; the development of three draft bills on registration of customary marriages and divorce, intestate succession and domestic violence; and a proposal devised with women’s organization on supporting women’s empowerment in the peace building process.

Turning to legal reforms, she said that the Constitution, in principle, recognized the equal rights of all citizens and provided that no law should have any discriminatory provision.  However, section 27 (4) stipulated limitations to the protection from discrimination with respect to adoption, marriage, divorce, burial and devolution of property on the death of the husband.  The effect was that that section discriminated against women on the basis of sex in relation to the matters set out.  That provision was an entrenched clause in the Constitution and inherited from the document of 1961.  Prior to independence, Sierra Leone was a British colony and British law had been applied in the capital of Freetown.  The rest of Sierra Leone had been a protectorate where customary law had been applied, except in matters of criminal offences.  The 1961 Constitution had sought to preserve the culture of the Protectorate and, therefore, had included those key aspects of customary law in the entrenched clause of the Constitution.

“To rectify this unwholesome state of affairs”, she said that the Government had established a Constitutional Review Commission to address that and other unacceptable provisions.  Arevised draft Constitution had yielded results.  Additionally, the Law Reform Commission had made significant progress in reviewing the laws, especially those relating to women’s rights.  Bills currently with the Attorney General included:  registration of customary marriage and divorce; devolution of estate bill; domestic violence bill; sexual offences bill; the Sierra Leone citizenship bill, or amendment of the 1973Act; the Christian marriage amendment; the Muslim marriage amendment; civil marriage amendment; and family law.  The President had informed the nation that the first three bills on that list, referred to as the “Gender Bills”, would be presented to Parliament by a “Certificate of Urgency” and enacted before Parliament was dissolved for the August parliamentary elections.  Those bills were now in the Cabinet for discussion.  She detailed the provisions of the three pending bills.

In terms of women in decision-making, she said that only modest gains had been made over the years.  There were a total of 18 women in the Parliament of a total of 124.  The Deputy Speaker was a woman and there were women heading important parliamentary committees.  The Cabinet, with a membership of 21, had three women.  There were also three female deputy ministers of a total of 10.  To improve on women’s representation at the local level, the Local Government Act of 2004 provided the legal framework to return to a decentralized Government after three decades.  In all, there were 19 councils headed by chairpersons, and one was a woman.  Out of 425 councillors elected in the 2004 local government elections, only 52 were women.  Women were heading important commissions and departments in the country, including:  National Electoral Commission; Immigration Department; National Commission for War Affected Children; Independent Media Commission; and Human Rights Commission.  Women also held senior positions in the civil service, police, army and so forth.  “We have made gains, but there was still a lot to do,” she acknowledged.

On eliminating gender disparity in education, she said that Sierra Leone considered that education was everybody’s right, and that view had guided the education policies, which were being implemented systematically and diligently.  Everyone had the right to basic education, which was compulsory.  The girl child education initiative had been inspired by the Government’s commitment and concern for the improvement and well-being of Sierra Leonean women.  Government intervention started at the primary level with the payment of fees for pupils in classes one through three, which took effect in 2000.  Free schooling was extended to classes four through six, which had led to a rapid rise in enrolment. 

To ensure retention at the secondary level, in the 2003-2004 academic years, the Government launched a girl child support education programme, through which girls who had passed the national primary school examination and who had entered the junior secondary school in the northern and eastern regions of the country, were provided with uniforms, teaching and learning materials and school fees.  Those regions had had the least number of females enrolled, owing to cultural and traditional barriers.  The number of beneficiaries had “soared”, and plans were on the way to extend the programme to the western and southern provinces in September.

She said that those actions had yielded positive results for girls’ education.  Currently, more parents were in a position to send their daughters to school, and there had been a significant increase in the number of girls accessing school in the eastern and northern regions.  There had also been an increase in the retention rates of girls, and more young mothers were being readmitted to educational institutions.

Regarding women and health, she said that the policy on reproductive health had been developed, and the child health policy was headed to Parliament for discussion.  The Health Ministry had mobilized resources to reduce child and maternal mortality, and training centres for health personnel at district levels had been established to ensure qualified staff.  Management of drugs had been decentralized, and among other gains, village committees had been set up to monitor the management of the health centres and provide feedback to the district administration.  To reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, support had been provided to civil society organizations, community leaders, religious leaders, local councils, “paramount chiefs”, and parliamentarians to engage in sensitization on the disease. 

She added that the Health Ministry and partners had provided motorized cars to ease the problem of transportation from communities to district health centres for women in prolonged labour, and 73 per cent of pregnant women now slept under anti-mosquito nets, as compared to two per cent in 2000, according to the Malaria Control Survey Report of 2007.  In addition, a massive tetanus campaign was being administered to women of child-bearing age.  Rural women were receiving special attention.

Overall, however, the Government was facing “serious” challenges in implementing the Convention, she acknowledged.  Some of those challenges included that fact that Sierra Leone remained a male-dominated society.  Her Ministry received less than one per cent of the national budget, which was grossly inadequate, and, thus, it depended largely on donor support.  The scarcity of resources and capacity impeded gender analysis, policy and programmatic interventions.  Human resource development remained a “very big challenge” for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, and traditional and cultural factors gave boys the priority when it came to education.  Women still faced prejudice when competing for managerial positions in the workplace, and their low self-esteem did not help that situation.  There were few women role models in the country, especially in the rural areas.  Awareness of the Convention among schoolchildren and making that part of the curricula was lagging.  There had been several legal gains, but the political will needed to implement them needed to be sustained and supported by resources.  The Government signed the Convention’s Optional Protocol in 2000, but it had not been able to ratify it.  Rural women, although they were the majority, remained disadvantaged in such areas as access to justice, education and health. 

Experts’ Questions and Comments

FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked for a timeframe for passing the three draft bills mentioned in the introduction, namely the bills on the registration of customary marriage and divorce, devolution of estate bill and the domestic violence bill.  Noting that customary laws were observed in 13 districts, she asked if the Government planned to codify customary laws, bringing them in line with the Convention.  She also wondered if the Government had a plan of action for the Convention’s domestication. 

FUMIKO SAIGA, expert from Japan, said it was regrettable that the Constitution, adopted in 1991 after the Government had ratified the Convention, included provisions that were contrary to the Convention.  In that regard, she asked for an update on the work of the Constitutional Review Commission, which was to hold a referendum in July.  Regarding the Law Reform Commission, she noted that the three draft gender-related bills would soon be submitted to the Parliament.  What about the six remaining bills outlined in the delegation’s presentation? 

MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, expert from Malaysia, asked if there were plans to amend customary laws, thereby bringing them in line with the Convention.   She was not clear about the parameters of customary law.  What areas did it govern, she asked, noting that different customary laws covered different ethnic groups.  Were there plans to unify the law regarding customary practice?  The devolution of estate bill and the domestic violence bill would also touch on customary law in practice.  Would they override customary law in practice?  On the jurisdiction of customary versus general law, she noted that in the case of customary law, chieftains took on other matters that did not normally come under the purview of customary law such as rape. 

RUTH HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, noted that Sierra Leone had ratified the Convention without reservation in 1988.  Some 20 years after the fact, everyone agreed that there was discrimination in law and in the Constitution.  She too was unclear about the process of reforming the Constitution.  Were the Law Reform Commission and the Constitutional Review Committee two different bodies or the same entity?  She asked for details on the Commission’s composition.  According to the dates provided, the constitutional reform should have been completed by the first week of May.  What had happened in that regard?  Was further work being done to review the other bills mentioned in the introduction?  She also posed a more general question about the status of customary law and religious law.  Were they written and codified? What were the legal implications of the jurisdiction of those laws in terms of adjudication by customary courts or religious courts?  Were there women on those courts?

DUBRAVKA SIMONOVIC, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, asked about the report’s preparation.  While experts were aware of the many problems facing the Government, the Convention was a legally binding human rights instrument that called on all States parties to proceed without delay with the elimination of discrimination against women.  The Convention should be used as a legally binding instrument.  It was important for States to adopt legislation, including sanctions to prohibit all forms of discrimination.  It was also necessary to prohibit discrimination and embody the principle of equality between women and men in the Constitution.  As Sierra Leone had ratified the Convention without reservations, it was important to change those discriminatory provisions, as soon as possible.  She also asked if the Government had cooperated with non-governmental organizations in the report’s preparation. 

Delegation’s Response

Ms. KOROMA said her Ministry had actively cooperated with non-governmental organizations, which had been involved in the report’s preparation. 

Responding to questions on legal matters, a member of the delegation said the issue of a timeframe for the three gender bills was a political rather than a legal question.  Regarding plans to codify customary law, he noted that customary law applied in 12 of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts.  General law applied in two western districts.  A pilot project had been underway on customary law with international support.  There had been plans to replicate the project in other districts.  Unfortunately, he had fallen gravely ill, to the point of death, during that project.  The codification process had started, however.  When the law governing customary law was enacted in 1963, a provision had been made by which customary law could not be inconsistent with the principles of equality and natural justice, he said, adding that local courts in the provinces did apply a system of checks. 

On the proposed amendment to the Constitution, he noted that the first draft by which section 27 (4) of the Constitution [which stipulated limitations to the protection from discrimination with respect to adoption, marriage, divorce, burial and devolution of property on the death of the husband] would no longer apply was already out.  That was good news.  He hoped there would be sufficient political will to amend the Constitution when it was put to a referendum this August.  Civil society had been pressuring the Government regarding the three bills, and the President had also expressed urgency in that regard.  There were plans for the bills to be sent to Parliament next month.

Customary law covered every area of human endeavour, he continued.  Customary criminal law governed petty crimes for which the maximum imprisonment was six months.  Any offence that called for imprisonment above six months fell beyond the jurisdiction of customary courts.  The penalties for sex offences for all types, including rape, were beyond the jurisdiction of the local courts, which applied customary law.  Appeals could go as far as the Supreme Court.  Local courts did not cover serious offences, including domestic violence of all sorts.

On the question of chiefs adjudicating customary law, he noted that while chiefs did not adjudicate, they did administer customary law.  Any party that was dissatisfied with the ruling of the chief had the right to complain before a local court. 

Regarding confusion between the Constitutional Review Committee and the Law Reform Commission, he said the Commission had been established with the mandate to review all laws and bring them in line with international obligations.  The President had decided that the review of the Constitution should be opened up to include every facet of society, including Government departments, civil society and non-governmental organizations.  At the end of the day, wisdom from all parts of the country had been included in the review, leading to the recommendation that section 27 (4) be expunged from the Constitution.   

The Constitution’s definition of discrimination was almost the same as the one provided for in the Convention, he added.  As such, article 27 (4) of the Constitution had been inconsistent. 

Experts’ Comments and Questions

MAGALYS AROCHA DOMINGUEZ, expert from Cuba, noting that 61 per cent of the population lived in rural areas, asked a number of questions about the structure of local cooperation and local level function.  Given that the policy for women’s advancement had as its aim to include women in development, how did the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs participate in formulating development policies and programmes, in order to ensure that women’s needs were addressed from the start?  Also, after a long period of war, there were many women heading households, and many who were displaced and disabled.  Did the various Ministries have any concrete plans to help those vulnerable groups?

VIOLETA NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, noted the poor funding and technical capacity of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, as well as the low-level ranking of its officers.  She regretted that, over a long period, no substantive positive changes had been achieved.  Since policies in the right direction had been adopted by the Parliament, she assumed that the Government reported to the Parliament on their implementation, including any obstacles it might be facing.  Had there been any such reports? Had the Government reported on budgetary constraints?  Was there ever any consideration given to establishing a parliamentary working body responsible for the advancement of women and gender equality?

MARIA REGINA TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, said that the structure of the national machinery, with a broad mandate and led by a Cabinet Minister, seemed to have a very good institutional framework.  There also seemed to be good policy instruments in place and civil society involvement.  While all of that looked promising, the report, which was frank, presented a less optimistic view, owing, for example, to a lack of financial and technical resources for implementation of the policies and programmes.  In addition, the gender focal points had no power to influence decisions; the report even said that they were “non-functional”.  Another reason for the weak implementation was the “competing” Government priorities.  Was gender equality and women’s advancement even considered an objective of the Government?  Was the entire Government fully committed to that, or was that mainly entrusted to the Ministry and to the Gender and Children’s Affairs Division?

FRANÇOISE GASPARD, Vice-Chairperson and expert from France, also asked a series of questions about the insufficient technical and financial resources and lagging implementation.

Delegation’s Response

Ms. KOROMA reiterated the problem of insufficient resources and the fact that the Ministry’s presence, therefore, was not effectively felt.  To correct that, the local councils were now functioning, and the Ministry would work with them to implement most of its programmes.  It was not voluntary for the councils to work with the Ministry; their cooperation was mandatory.  Also the Ministry was now a member of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission’s committee in Sierra Leone.  One of its tasks was addressing reparations for the victims of war, and among those victims were the heads of households who had lost their husbands in the war.

As for the Ministry’s lack of resources, it had been lobbying for an increase.  Emerging from an 11-year civil war, there had been a lot of destruction.  Moreover, the focus had been on security, as well as on reconstruction and rebuilding of infrastructure, for which Sierra Leone relied heavily on its donor partners.  The Government had gone a long way in replacing the destroyed structures, and, hopefully, after the upcoming election, there would be more resources given to the Ministry and to the Division.  The gender focal points had been an issue for the Ministry.  Overall, the lack of resources had not made it possible for the Ministry to carry out its mandate “as we should”, she said.  It was working in collaboration with non-governmental organizations and civil society to impress upon the Government that gender issues should be fully supported and that the necessary resources should be allocated.

Experts’ Questions and Comments

Ms. SIMONOVIC, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, had raised the issue of opposition to temporary special measures.  It seemed that some measures were being planned in the field of women’s political advancement.  Sierra Leone was still a male dominated society.  For that reason, article 4.1 of the Convention and the Committee’s general recommendation 25 called on States parties to adopt special temporary measures to accelerate women’s advancement.  Did the Constitution include a provision for special temporary measures? 

Delegation’s Response

Responding, a member of the delegation said the Constitution was very serious about the issue of non-discrimination for both men and women.  The problem was that the Convention had not been localized.  Action had started in that regard, however. 

Experts’ Comments and Questions

GLENDA SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, congratulated the delegation on the excellent presentation on the constructive efforts that the Government had made, in spite of the destabilizing effects of political turmoil and the devastating civil war.  Sierra Leone had ratified the Convention and, in doing so, had committed itself under article 5 to modify the social and cultural patterns of men and women to eliminate all customary practices based on the idea of the inferiority and superiority of either sex.  She noted with great disappointment and absolute shock that none of the well articulated legal and social initiatives on violence against women and the assertion of women’s rights as fundamental human rights had mentioned even once the consequences of female genital mutilation.  When was the Government planning to meet its obligation under the Convention to eliminate the most blatant assault on the very definition of womanhood, in line with the fundamental right of every girl and woman to maintain her bodily integrity from birth to death?

SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, noted that customary laws and practices reinforced women’s inferiority in the country.  What measures was the Government putting in place to tackle the high incidence of rape and domestic violence?  What support did victims receive?  Was there any plan to collect data on the magnitude of violence against women?  Domestic violence had extensive consequences on women’s overall sexual and reproductive health.  How would the State address domestic violence as a crime?  Was the Government considering the possibility of elaborating a special law on domestic violence, given its specific nature?

Ms. TAVARES DA SILVA, expert from Portugal, noted that stereotypes seemed to be strong in Sierra Leone.  The report was clear about that and there was no indication of a comprehensive strategy to address the issue.  In that regard, she stressed the need to envision a comprehensive strategy to change stereotypes.  According to information provided, the incidence of rape and sexual violence had been higher during the post-conflict period.  Those crimes had been seriously underreported.  Was that still the case?  If so, what were the formal deterrents to reporting and prosecution?  She also noted that with allegations of rape, it was necessary for a doctor to issue a certificate for examination at the victim’s expense, posing additional difficulties for women.  As rape was an extremely horrible form of violence, what measures existed to improve women’s access to justice?

HEISOO SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said it was a blessing that Sierra Leone had a vibrant civil society.  The report recognized the economic issues involved with female genital mutilation, as practitioners earned money from the procedure.  Therefore, the Government should consider offering alternative livelihoods for those involved in the terrible practice.  Another way to tackle the issue was to change men’s understanding of sexuality.  The reason why the practice continued was because men did not want to marry women who had not undergone female genital mutilation.  Changing that attitude was important.

DORCAS COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, said the delegation had acknowledged the difficulty in dealing with traditions and customs.  As a person coming from the subregion, from a country that also grappled with the issue of custom and tradition, it was her impression that Governments sometimes used traditions as an excuse not to deal with the issue of women.  Customs were dynamic, she noted, adding that it was only when it came to issues related to women that customs become unchangeable.  With political will, such practices that affected the advancement of women could be changed.  She encouraged the Government to be committed to dealing with customary practices.  Keeping women in the background would not help the country’s development.  The issue of violence against women had been prominent in the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  What was the Government doing to implement those recommendations?

Delegation’s Response

Addressing questions about rape and domestic violence, a member of the delegation said that the first problem facing the Government in that regard after the war had been a problem of judicial personnel.  With the help of development partners, that problem was nearly solved and nearly all courts were functioning again.  Just after the war, he had been the sole prosecutor for the 12 provinces, moving from one to another.  There was now three, with one assigned to each region.  The maximum punishment for rape was life in prison, and that was “quite a deterrent”.  The major problem, however, was the willingness of the victims to step forward to testify.  There was a fear of stigma, but the rules of evidence required an exact accounting of what had been done to the victim.  Sometimes reliving the trauma impeded the victims from coming forward, but counselling was available for that purpose.  He added that there was a “rather Draconian provision” concerning sexual abuse of girls. 

Ms. KOROMA added that a family unit had been set up in all police stations to deal with rape and family violence.  In addition, help was provided for women victims at the regional and local levels in the form of transportation to medical facilities, counselling, assistance with the courts, and so forth. 

She said that female genital mutilation was “deeply rooted”, with a prevalence of more than 90 per cent.  It used to be taboo to talk about it, but that had changed.  It was understood that it was a serious issue that needed to be addressed.  Legislation was possible, but it was likely a law would be ignored if people were not properly educated or sensitized.  Some non-governmental organizations were engaged in sensitization activities and in working with the “initiators” of the practice.  For example, they suggested economic alternatives, but the initiators did not “take the package and say, ‘okay, we are going to throw away our knives’”.  That was why each year, on International Women’s Day, there was a special closed-door meeting with the initiators to allow them to talk freely about why they continued the practice.

Female genital mutilation was legal in Sierra Leone, and an initiation could not be done without the permission of the local courts and the acquisition of a license, she explained.  Thus, stopping the practice meant engaging traditional leaders and many other stakeholders.  It had been suggested that female genital mutilation should be delayed since girls as young as five years old or younger were initiated, but the bill that had been introduced said a girl had to be 18 years old and give her consent; she could not be forced. 

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. SIMONOVIC, Committee Chairperson and expert from Croatia, said that the Committee had discussed the issue of female genital mutilation with non-governmental organizations, who said that it might be possible to make 18 the age of consent.  However, that had elicited a strong response from Committee members.  That practice at any age was a violation of women’s rights and was not in accordance with the Convention.  “Maybe you can save a child until age 18, but that will still be a violation of the Convention,” she stressed.  The country could continue to educate, but prohibition should be a first step, and that prohibition should include all women, she said.

SAISUREE CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked if there was a specific punishment clause for State personnel involved in trafficking.  Also, had the relevant personnel, not only the police, been properly trained to implement the anti-trafficking law?  She asked for clarification about the duties of the inter-ministerial committee and the national task force, specifically, their links and mandates.  She also sought information about the status of the action plan on anti-trafficking and why it had not yet won the approval of the Cabinet.  Was the Government aware that most traffickers were not prosecuted?  She also asked about the possibility of conducting a study on the trafficking situation, in order to devise effective measures.  Perhaps the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UNIFEM and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) could assist in such a study if resources were limited.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation said that the Anti-Trafficking Act itself had provisions relating to all questions raised about monitoring.  The first part of the Act -– which came into force in 2005 -- concerned administrative measures to combat human trafficking. 

Ms. KOROMA added that there had been some training in the western area and in the three regions.  The suggestion for conducting a study had been a good one and she would discuss that with the partners to see if it could be taken on board.  She could not at present give the status of the action plan.  Perhaps that reply would be forthcoming by the time she returned home.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

ZOU XIAOQIAO, expert from China, said that Sierra Leonean women were still at a disadvantage when it came to decision-making and representation in diplomatic circles.  Among the reasons cited for that in the report were traditional values and low self-esteem on the part of the women.  What had the Government done to advance women’s status and their position in the Government?  Also, had the media been encouraged to advocate women’s participation in Government?  Were there training seminars for potential candidates for Government posts?

In 2000, she noted, the Parliament had adopted national policies for women’s advancement.  Had those included elements of women’s participation in public life, or strategic targets, and the setting up of quota systems?  If such measures had been included, had there been any evaluations?  What had been the outcomes? The head of the delegation had stated that she hoped the presidential and local elections would witness more women’s participation.  Had the Government set any concrete targets in that regard?

Ms. NEUBAUER, expert from Slovenia, said that women in Sierra Leone had been playing an important role in resolving the conflict there.  The number of women elected to Parliament in 2002 was substantially larger than in 1996.  At the same time, women’s representation in Parliament and in the Cabinet had remained low.  According to the report, a system of temporary special measures had been adopted to ensure a gender balance of candidates for the 2002 elections.  If those measures adopted by the political parties had been applied, how had it turned out that the percentage of women elected was so low, or had those measures been adopted but not applied?  There was no evidence that the Government had elaborated policies to overcome the marginalization of women in politics and public life.  What measures did the Government envisage to increase women’s involvement in decision-making and politics?  For instance, did it plan to introduce temporary special measures, taking into account the Committee’s general recommendation 25 on article 24 of the Convention?

Ms. SHIN, expert from the Republic of Korea, said she was pleased that the Ministry had held sensitization workshops nationwide on Security Council 1325 (2000) and that it was represented in the Peacebuilding Commission.  That resolution had called for women’s increased participation in post-conflict reconstruction, among other things.  How many women were represented in the Peacebuilding Commission?  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had recommended that the President and the country’s political leaders should offer an unequivocal apology to women and girls for the harm they suffered on the Government’s behalf.  Had there been such an apology?  What was the status of implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations?  It was very important to “get to them now” so that the suffering did not continue for the rest of the women’s lives, she urged.

MERIEM BELMIHOUB-ZERDANI, expert from Algeria, also had questions about the number of women in Parliament and decision-making posts.  At the same time, she acknowledged the “terrible situation” of the country and said it was the United Kingdom that should present apologies to Sierra Leone and take responsibility for the country’s reconstruction.  There had been many civil wars, but Sierra Leone had had the courage and political will, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to try to heal the wounds.  A great deal was being done, but a great deal remained to be done.  Together, men and women would be able to emerge from that difficult situation in the country; only by working hand-in-hand with each other could Sierra Leone be saved.  Women had a very important role to play within the Parliament.  It should be ensured that they were represented at the level of at least 30 per cent, and all United Nations conventions should be ratified unconditionally.  The country could ask for more help from the United Nations, from the Committee itself, in fact, she offered. 

HANNA BEATE SCHÖPP-SCHILLING, expert from Germany, said she had been disturbed by the reference to political will.  Did any party running for election to Parliament have gender issues in its party platform?  Was any consideration given in the Government to formulating a new electoral law that would allow for temporary special measures, or were political parties discussing such measures?  She also asked a series of questions about the paramount chiefs, including whether they had to be a daughter or granddaughter of a chief to be elected. 

Delegation’s Response

To questions concerning the Peacebuilding Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, JOE ROBERT PEMAGBI, Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations, said he did not know the number of women on the Peacebuilding Committee, but he had gone to Freetown last month with the Peacebuilding Commission and he thought the women were represented.  He had also seen a strong civil society presence.  He agreed that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was “a little behind”, but that was because it “captured all the causes and consequences of the conflict” and, therefore, implementation of its recommendations required a lot of capacity and resources.  However, there were certain policies that were “being moved forward”.  One key recommendation concerned the formation of a human rights institution.  There was also a policy on youth, and one on youth employment in particular, which were being implemented.

He said that some of the causes of conflict in Sierra Leone had been the failure of development, economic mismanagement and corruption, and structures had now been set up to address those issues.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations touched on almost all facets of life in the country, and various ministries were already implementing them, but not all recommendations were being implemented.  As for the position of women, the more women who were educated, the greater their chances of occupying key positions in society, he said.

Another member of the delegation addressed his responses to the series of questions about paramount chiefs.  He said that was the only permanent office in Sierra Leone.  In cases of misconduct, however, the Ministry responsible for administering the chiefs could suspend him or her or even remove the person.  There were some women, particularly in the south and east of the country.  A lot of education and training was needed in the north to allow women to become paramount chiefs.  It was true they had to belong to a ruling family –- meaning that a father, grandfather or great grandfather had to have been a chief.  A person was nominated by a committee, or chiefdom, consisting of elders or tribal authorities.  Various ruling families could compete for the slot.  In that case, an election was held. 

Responding to questions on the participation of women in politics, Ms. KOROMA said that a women’s organization currently existed in Sierra Leone to build capacity among female aspirants.  The “50-50 Group”, for instance, trained women to participate in politics.  The President of Sierra Leone had launched a women’s manifesto, in which emphasis was placed on reaching the 30 per cent quota of women’s membership in political parties.  National consultations were taking place on ways to train female aspirants at the national level, in collaboration with political parties.

However, the country’s constituency-based election system made it difficult to “give symbols” to women who were not formally registered with a particular constituency.  As a result, the Government had begun encouraging women to formally register with political parties and to identify themselves with a particular constituency, if they planned to run for elections.  In addition, she said, the political party to which she belonged had reduced its candidature fee by half for women aspirants and a fundraising event had also been held for the benefit of female aspirants.

Training sessions had taken place in conjunction with International Women’s Day to sensitize journalists on the importance of women’s issues.  The results were weekly articles on women and their participation in politics.  Also, posters portraying women in decision-making activities were common.  Also on International Women’s Day, she said the President had lodged a formal apology to the women of Sierra Leone for “whatever atrocities they went through during the war”.  The Government and members of civil society then conducted training activities where special kits were given to encourage economic activity among war victims.  War amputees could benefit from a housing programme, and their children were given free education.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. SAIGA, expert from Japan, asked what the Government planned to do to review the country’s Citizenship Act, which contained a clause stating that citizenship could only be passed through the father and grandfather, in cases where the mother was not Sierra Leonean -- even if she was born in Sierra Leone.  She asked how many people where affected by the provision preventing those born in Sierra Leone from obtaining citizenship due to that clause.  She noted that children could only obtain citizenship if their birth was properly registered, and asked how many children were not registered.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation replied that that proviso in the Citizenship Act was being changed to include “mother” and “grandmother”.  Recently, the country had embarked on a holistic review of national citizenship law, where an entire chapter of the Constitution would be devoted to citizenship.  Citizenship would be an entrenched clause, making it difficult to amend.  Indeed, it could only be amended through referendum.

On registration of births, Ms. KOROMA said that a week-long sensitization campaign was being conducted in conjunction with the Ministry of Health on the importance of registering newborns, at the district level.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. CHUTIKUL, expert from Thailand, asked about efforts to increase the number of girls in schools.  She noted that the enrolment rate for girls and young women in schools had risen, but they still numbered less than boys due to cultural values.  She asked what the Government was doing to change the value system.  Was any effort being made in organizing activities to empower girls?  Raising the self-esteem of girls was one way to “immunize” them against human rights violations, and perhaps the Government should seek the assistance of interested non-governmental organizations, both nationally and internationally.

She also asked for more information on in-service and pre-service training for teachers, which should include gender sensitive issues.  Also, were teachers paid on time every month?

Delegation’s Response

Mr. PEMAGBI agreed that quality education began with quality educators.  Women were particularly encouraged to be trained as teachers, but there needed to be incentives, better salaries and so forth.  There were a lot of untrained teachers.  During the war, nobody had even wanted to pay teachers on time, owing to an unavailability of funds.  In those parts of the country where schools were still running then, it was very difficult because there was no money.  For the most part, that had now been corrected.  Efforts should be made to include women into technical areas, but there was stereotyping emanating from women’s and girl’s self-perception.  So, a lot of work had to be done to tell the girl child that “there is nothing that a woman cannot achieve”.  There were adult education programmes that taught income-generating skills, especially for women who lost educational opportunities during the war.  

Experts’ Comments and Questions

PRAMILA PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, said that what was required now was political will to move forward.  Resources were another major challenge.  She wished to be reassured that it was a focus of the Labour Minister to rethink the employment priorities because the picture was “very grim”.  She was concerned about the total absence of gender disaggregated data on unemployment.  Was any effort being made to collect such data, and had any assistance been sought for that purpose?  Women comprised a very large percentage of the informal sector, and it was important to “capture the informal female workforce in the economy”.  Was there a specific legal provision to prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of gender or marriage?

Delegation’s Response

Another member of the delegation said the Labour Ministry was rethinking the employment policies.  Affirmative action was not written into the laws per se, but it was encouraged and, in many instances, practiced, and an action plan had been developed.  The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs had called for an emphasis on disaggregated data.  He agreed that the informal sector was a very serious problem.  The local councils could potentially be used to educate women and build their confidence, he added.

Legislation on the protection of women began with the Constitution, another member of the delegation said.  In terms of equal access to jobs and equal pay for equal work, those were not rights under the Constitution; just principles.  However, in the current constitutional review, the committee was proposing that those become rights, and not just policies or principles, in the form of substantive laws.  The Industrial Relations Act of 1971 had provided for the formation of trade unions among workers in the informal sector. Replying to another question, he said that the employment of married, pregnant women was protected.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. XIAOQIAO, expert from China, said she appreciated the very frank answers, especially concerning the high maternal morbidity and mortality rates, as well as measures taken by the Government to address the problem.  In the strategic plan, however, had the Government envisaged increased investment in enhancing reproductive health care and protection of reproductive rights?  Had it considered decreasing the cost of health care, including providing affordable care to poor women?  Had it also considered providing more training to medical professionals and increasing the medical infrastructure in rural areas?

She noted the report’s failure to say anything about abortion, and asked whether that was legal or illegal in Sierra Leone.  She had understood that unsafe abortions had led to a high maternal mortality rate.  She wished to know more about that, and what steps the Government intended to take to curtail abortion.  She also sought more information about the use of contraceptives in the country, including in rural areas, and whether there was an awareness-raising campaign about their use.

FERDOUS ARA BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, said that it appeared access to health care services was acute in rural areas.  She asked what services were provided in those areas, especially in light of the high rates of maternal mortality and harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation. 

MARY SHANTHI DAIRIAM, Rapporteur and expert from Malaysia, felt that health care services were out of reach and unaffordable, especially for the rural population.  She asked about so-called “informal” fees and what action the Government was taking on that, especially in light of reports from “alternative sources” that the Government was planning to “scrap” exemption of fees for vulnerable groups.  She was pleased that the Government had plans to reduce maternal mortality and sought to mobilize resources for that purpose, but wanted to know whether it was setting benchmarks and targets for reducing those figures.  She urged a confidential investigation of every maternal death.  If the problem was one of infrastructure, such as lack of transportation, insufficient availability of blood in hospitals, inability to pay, and so forth, those could readily be addressed and deaths could be averted; that was a matter of life and death for women, she added. 

SILVIA PIMENTEL, expert from Brazil, focused her series of questions on family planning and unsafe abortions.  The report said that there was limited sensitization and counselling about family planning in the rural areas.  The head of the delegation had stated this morning that the reproductive health policy had been completed.  She asked the delegation to elaborate.  Also, was there a Government plan to collect data on unsafe abortions, specifically its contribution to maternal mortality and morbidity?  She also wanted to know whether there were any plans for quality, affordable and accessible post-abortion care.

Ms. GASPARD, returning to the question of female genital mutilation, said that that was considered “unacceptable violence” against women, under the Convention.  It ran counter to several provisions of the treaty, including its article 12 on women’s health.  The head of the delegation this morning had stressed the need to make people aware of that, in order to eradicate the practice.  It was hard to believe that there was a need to make the medical community aware of the negative effects of the practice, and she wondered whether the relationship between that practice and the rates of maternal mortality was understood.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation answered the question on maternal mortality, acknowledging that in the past 10 years, maternal mortality in Sierra Leone had been one of the highest in the world, although it had decreased slightly in recent years.  He said the situation was attributable to insufficient manpower to handle obstetric issues, especially in rural areas.  Close to 60 per cent of the country’s medical personnel had already left because of the war, and some still continued to leave.  As a result, the Government was developing a special salary scale to attract new medical personnel and to help retain the ones the country still had. 

As a stop gap measure, he said the Government had begun to train community health officers to manage obstetric complications.  A pilot programme had demonstrated success and plans were in place to scale up that programme so that more rural areas could benefit from the system.  Nurses and maternal health aides were also being trained at the district level, to help boost the thinly-spread staff at the country’s 900 medical facilities nationwide.

As for abortion, he said he was aware that unsafe abortions were being conducted in the country, which might be among the causes of maternal death in Sierra Leone.  Plans were in place to improve child survival and reduce maternal mortality, which would include a clause in the new reproductive health policy that would make room for “medically clean abortions” and post-abortion care.  Hopefully, that provision would reduce the number of unsafe abortions.

He said a recent survey had reported a five per cent contraception use rate in the country, and an even lower rate in rural areas, which was attributable to cultural beliefs that “children were a gift from God”.  Awareness-raising was needed to increase the use of contraceptives, and the Government planned to embark on programmes with non-governmental partners.  In doing so, more resources were needed to obtain “contraceptive commodities”.  As part of the new plan to improve child survival and reduce maternal mortality, the Government would invest more money into contraception.

On the subject of fistulas, he said people tended not to report any instances of that problem, although three clinics existed in Freetown dealing specifically with that problem.  Draft strategies were in place to scale up intervention programmes in rural areas in that regard.

He said there were various forms of payment for health services -- some were free, while some were subsidized.  The Government and its development partners were currently assessing different payment methods for medical services, with some partners insisting on free universal coverage and others calling for a minimal across-the-board charge.  The most likely solution was to provide exemptions to children under five years, pregnant women, lactating mothers and the elderly, which was already the policy at the Ministry, even though there had been problems in implementing it.  

He said transportation problems often led to high costs in the provision of medical services.  It was difficult to deliver drugs to facilities, and some medical practitioners made out-of-pocket payments to ensure delivery by lorry.  At the moment, the Government was working on strengthening the village health committee system, which oversaw the running of health facilities.  The committee system was not yet working effectively, however.

He said the Government was obliged to its partners to demonstrate results at the end of two years and, so, benchmarks would soon be in place to measure progress.  Indeed, a “maternal audit” was part of the new plan to improve child survival and maternal morbidity.  However, obtaining data on unsafe abortion was difficult; perhaps, data collection would improve if abortion could be made legal on medical grounds.  The Government would pursue the idea of legalizing abortion in some instances.  It was difficult to “wipe out” female genital mutilation, but the Government would work on educating practitioners about adverse health effects of female genital mutilation.  Surprisingly, most people in the community were not against the practice.

Experts’ Comments and Question

Ms. PATTEN, expert from Mauritius, asked whether the national policy on integrated rural development, which the delegation mentioned in its oral report, had ever been evaluated.  Also, given that a majority of women lived in rural areas, and were engaged in subsistence farming but had unequal access to land, she was disappointed not to have heard more about land reform.  According to the report, work on that issue was stalled.  When would it be taken up?  Furthermore, once recommendations were received from the commission of land reform, what were the next steps?

She then asked whether efforts were being taken to address the lack of access to credit.  What was the Government doing to strengthen links between banks and other intermediaries to mobilize capital?  Also, what was it doing to regulate money lending activities?  Finally, what was the Government doing to identify the other needs of rural women?

ANAMAH TAN, expert from Singapore, also asked for more information regarding the national policy and action plan of 1994.  She also asked whether data was collected on loans taken by women, and at what rate of interest those loans were made.  Noting a reference to micro-credit programmes in the country report, she asked how much credit had actually been disbursed, and what those funds were being used for.

Turning to land reform, she asked whether agricultural policies encouraged the release of land to women heads of household, and, if so, under what circumstances.  Were they given sole rights, or were they required to share the land with male relatives?  How many women became landowners through that method?

Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, noted that 51 per cent of the Sierra Leonean population were women and that a majority lived in rural areas.  Even though 80 per cent of the country’s food was produced by those women, their living conditions were poor and they remained marginalized and disenfranchised.  The country’s belief systems placed them under too many restrictions.  Women must learn to appreciate their sexuality, and not cave in whenever men challenged their sexuality.  A change in ideology was needed to dismantle that patriarchal society.  Men needed to recognize that restricting women’s sexuality was tantamount to restricting the country’s potential.  Was there enough political will to initiate a discussion between the sexes?  Women could not be expected to meet that challenge alone; men must also speak to men.

Delegation’s Response

Ms. KOROMA said she agreed that men should lead the campaign against female genital mutilation because it was men who “give the okay, who give the permission for ‘FMG’ to take place”.  Without the permission of the husband and father, that practice would not take place.  They were also the ones to give the “cutters” the licenses to go ahead.  She would take that comment fully on board.

Another member of the delegation said that, to her knowledge, there had been no evaluation of the national action plan.  Like the experts, she was also concerned about the number of women involved in decision-making and in the political process; the figures were meaningful, but not terribly significant.  The action plan should lead to women’s meaningful participation in the local councils, but presently, of 225 councils, there were only about 52 women councillors. 

In terms of educating the girl child in rural areas, particularly in the north and east, she said that was a case of “the girl child left behind”, and to her knowledge, there had been “no evaluation at all”. 

Regarding questions on the difficulty women faced in accessing credit, she said the Government was trying to take the lead in addressing those challenges by, among other things, creating linkages with the money lenders.

In terms of property and land rights, she said that women produced about 80 per cent of what was consumed in the country, yet they did not always benefit from what they grew.  The products were sent to urban areas, while there was starvation in the rural areas.  If the Government really wanted to work with rural women, it needed to devise a very specific policy for that purpose.

Another member of the delegation addressed questions about the land system, specifically how different parts of the country were regulated by different systems.  For example, he said, in the western area, there was an individualistic system, meaning that there were no legal barriers to women owning land.  In the provinces, land tenure was governed by customary law; it belonged to the family, and no individual could own or dispose of land without the permission of the head of the family, most of whom were men: “That is where the problem lies,” he said.

Traditional practices also governed the issue of land rights, he added.  After puberty, a woman was supposed to be married and live at the home of her husband.  At that point, the land she lived on and worked belonged to her husband’s family, which decided who to give the land to and under what conditions.  The rules of customary law varied from one ethnic group to the next.  Reviewing property rights, which was now underway, was a long-term process.  There was no timeframe presently attached to the review.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. HALPERIN-KADDARI, expert from Israel, asked whether, under customary law, there was any limit to the number of wives a man could marry or a fixed minimum age for marriage.  On the causes of divorce, different grounds were allowed for men as compared to women.  Was there any effort to review that?  She also wished to verify whether only men sat as judges in customary or religious courts, and if so, whether there was any prospect for change in that regard.

Ms. TAN, expert from Singapore, asked if the legislation on marriage and the family law act complied with articles 15 and 16 of the Convention.  What happened when there was a conflict of laws with regard to the four marriage laws?  Would the family law act supersede?  The general law stated that a husband had a duty to maintain his wife, while the wife had a duty to do the household chores.  That requirement was legally binding, typecasting men and women to stereotypical roles.  Were there any plans to revise that, to create a “more gender-equal state of affairs”?  Islamic laws on the question of divorce “appear to be skewed very heavily in favour of the husband”, she said, adding that their “highly discriminatory nature” put Sierra Leonean women in a very difficult position should they wished to seek a divorce.  She asked if there was any attempt on the part of the Government to discuss that issue with the elders in an effort to reach a more equitable state of affairs.  She also asked whether there was “any move” to increase the marriage age of 14 for females.

Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked a number of questions about the property rights of spouses.  Customary law presumed that the man owned the property.  As such, did it not matter whether the wife had contributed to the land?  She also asked about different grounds for divorce for men and women, and about the minimum age for marriage, which violated, not only the Women’s Convention, but also the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Delegation’s Response

Taking up the issue of polygamy and bigamy, a member of the delegation explained that, under customary law, the husband was at liberty to have as many wives as he could maintain.  However, bigamy was a criminal offence under the Christian Marriage Act and civil marriage laws, and was punishable by eight years in prison. 

He said that, under customary law, there was no minimum age for marriage, and many girls were betrothed in childhood to an older man who looked after her until she became his wife.  Parliament was seeking to establish a minimum age for marriage (18 years), and to require the woman’s consent before marriage, even in customary marriages.

Regarding the repayment of marriage gifts upon divorce, he said a proposal had been introduced to make such gifts legally non-refundable.  Giftspaid by the man to the woman’s family could include school fees, medical fees for sick relations, and so on.  It was common for some men to prevent their wives from leaving the marriage by claiming an exorbitant “refund” fee.

As for the impact of marriage on the devolution of property, he said couples in civil and Christian marriages had the right to own property either separately or jointly.  In cases of “joint ownership” or “tenants in common”, the surviving spouses inherited 100 per cent of the property in the case of a partner’s death.  In cases of contention, such as during a divorce, each party could seek legal recourse.  A “devolution of estates” bill was presently before Parliament to, among other things, address the disproportionate division of property in the case of customary and Muslim marriages, so that they were more consistent with civil law provisions.  Indeed, under customary law, a woman must relocate to the man’s home after marriage.  Upon the husband’s death, their land and house would return to the husband’s family.  Another clause would be introduced to give women the right to own and dispose of both movable and immovable property.

He said the validity of customary law was contingent on it not being inconsistent with the country’s higher courts, and there were indeed instances where women had petitioned the courts to rectify certain “wrongs”.

He said there were no religious courts in Sierra Leone.  There were also no legal barriers against women becoming chairs of the local courts.  Yet, in the 280 local courts, there used to be one female chairman, but even she was removed through “some misconduct on our part”, leaving no female chairs at all.  He was currently conducting training, with the help of UNIFEM, to convince people that women could also serve as chairs of local courts.

Returning to the subject of marriage, he said he was not aware of any provision in customary marriages which bound women to performing domestic chores.  There were some disparities between the different types of marriage regarding grounds for divorce -- in customary marriages, adultery on the part of a husband was not grounds for divorce for a woman, though a man could divorce his wife because she committed adultery; and a man could divorce his wife on the grounds of her “laziness”-- for instance, if she refused to work on his farm.  Also, a man could sue the third party for “women damages”, but the equivalent was not available to women.  However, some people were advocating that the law reform commission give women the right to sue the third party intruder for “man damages”.

He said women could go to a local court to petition for divorce if her husband committed adultery, but it must be for repeated acts of adultery.

Experts’ Comments and Questions

Ms. BEGUM, expert from Bangladesh, asked when the delegation expected those bills to be passed.  Regarding trafficking in persons, she asked for information on preventive measures taken by the Government, including any socio-economic measures.  Also, what about the reintegration of victims?

Ms. SIMMS, expert from Jamaica, asked how many women were involved in customary marriages, and whether it was possible for a husband to be “lazy”.

Ms. COKER-APPIAH, expert from Ghana, asked whether marital rape was a crime under the new laws.

Delegation’s Response

A member of the delegation said marital rape was part of the sexual offences bill.  Men could indeed be lazy, but it was not grounds for divorce under customary law.  However, the wife could petition for lack of maintenance.  As for the three gender-related bills, he said they had been sent to the Cabinet and to the Parliament with a certificate of urgency, to be dealt with before the end of June.  Since those bodies had the discretion to remove or add to those bills, the Ministry must “prowl” the corridors to ensure that the important clauses were retained.

Ms. KOROMA added that women could divorce their husbands if they were impotent.  No data existed on the number of customary marriages, but it was thought that about 90 per cent of rural women were married under customary law.

In concluding remarks, she thanked the Committee for the interaction, saying the delegation had learned a lot from it.  Many issues had been noted for immediate follow-up, and they were sure to contact the Committee for support.  Sierra Leone was rather constrained in the area of technical support and resources.  The Division for the Advancement of Women had done much for the country already, and she expressed hope that that collaboration would continue.  She looked forward to continuing her work with the Committee, saying her delegation would call on the expertise of its members as required.

Chairperson’s Concluding Remarks

The Committee Chairperson, Ms. SIMONOVIC, thanked the representatives of Sierra Leone for participating in its first constructive dialogue with the Committee, which had been long overdue.  Their presence was important, given that their country was undertaking constitutional and other legal reforms.  It was important to push for the domestication of the Convention, since it provided a complete legal framework for eliminating discriminatory laws and practices in the country.  The Convention should be used as a tool to press and inform all levels of Government to put the necessary laws into practice, including on combating all forms of violence against women, which included female genital mutilation.  Hopefully, at the next country report in four years’ time, Sierra Leone would be in a position to demonstrate results in that area.

The country could expect to receive the Committee’s concluding comments and directions for full implementation of the Convention at the national level.  Those comments should be distributed widely throughout Government and among non-governmental organizations, and used to accelerate the pace of change.

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.