Tangier – The First Lady of Sierra Leone delivered a powerful speech at MEDays 2019 on November 15. Fatima Maada Bio, seated at the head of the 15-member roundtable, addressed a crowded room on the third day of the international forum.
The First Lady has long been an advocate for women’s rights and empowerment in Sierra Leone, and she attended the roundtable as the guest of honor.
After a greeting from Reckya Madougou, the roundtable’s moderator, the First Lady delivered her opening address at the discussion of “African Women: No Parity, No Development.”
“How fast can a person run with only one leg?” she asked the audience. “How much work can a person do with only one arm?”
“How much development is possible in Africa, and how fast can we develop in Africa when women are not given opportunities to reach their full potential and contribute equally to national development?”
The First Lady challenged political leaders, business leaders, community leaders, and policy-makers in Africa to efficiently address the urgent need to prioritize women throughout the continent.
“If we do not close the disparity in gender, we can not attain inclusive and sustainable development in Africa,” she warned.
Bio praises her country’s progress
The First Lady outlined the primary concerns that African leaders must address.
“The first concern is with physical and legal protection,” she began. “We have a duty of care to ensure that our women and girls are protected from child marriage, from sexual exploitation, from rape, and from sexual violence.”
She lauded her husband, Julius Maada Bio, the current President of Sierra Leone, for standing up for women in their country and for empowering her to initiate programs that support the women of Sierra Leone.
The President and First Lady of Sierra Leone launched the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign in December 2018. The project’s goal is to eliminate rape, teenage pregnancy, and all forms of abuse against women and girls.
“With that program, us women in Sierra Leone can smile knowing full well we have a leader that believes in women’s empowerment and is ready to work with us women,” she said.
She then called upon Africa’s political leaders and policymakers to take advantage of their capacity to change mindsets and cultural attitudes by enacting legal protections for women and girls. She offered the example of Sierra Leone as an African country that has demonstrated its willingness to take this matter seriously.
On February 8, 2019, the President of Sierra Leone declared a rape a national emergency. After a series of sexual assaults involving minors took place in Sierra Leone, the First Lady and activists around the country called for stricter punishment for perpetrators of sexual violence.
The changes enacted following the President’s declaration included “stiffer penalties meant to help men think twice before a woman’s rights are violated,” the First Lady said at the MEDays 2019 roundtable.
Bio: “We cannot financially exclude women”
“When women speak for other women, their voices are better informed and more authentic,” the First Lady declared.
She emphasized the need to improve women’s involvement in politics and decision-making in Africa. In addition, she urged African governments to prioritize women’s health.
She then described how empowering women through education directly benefits entire nations.
“The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to take advantage of economic opportunities” that contribute to a country’s economic growth.
Even with education, however, women are often financially excluded in most African countries.
Women throughout the continent lack national identity cards and have little access to formal financial institutions—crucial barriers to African women’s innovation, entrepreneurship, financial stability, and independence.
“Women are excluded from all opportunities where they are expected to assert their identity,” she argued.
“We cannot financially exclude women. Women must have equal access to financial services if Africa wants to grow.”
“Give women priority in the workspace, and allow women to contribute their 51% to national development,” the First Lady said.
“As we all know, we have more women in Africa than men. If you give us the space, we will use that space and make Africa heaven. Only then can any country claim equal inclusive and sustainable development.”
“If you keep all your women in the kitchen, you will only have smoke in Africa,” she warned.
“But if you allow your women to be educated and to be empowered, then we will change Africa and the world will come to us, instead of us chasing the world.”