In the last few years, Sierra Leone has made tremendous progress in the protection of the rights of women and girls. Through my husband’s leadership, our country has been recognized as a global champion for women and girls. President Bio has set forth important policies on girls’ education and women in leadership.
In my capacity as First Lady, I continue to champion the Hands Off Our Girls campaign and led a recent United Nations resolution for the Prevention of and Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Violence.
While we should all be proud of these significant strides, the threat of instability poses a higher risk of reversing our gains in empowering the women and girls of this country.
Several countries, including Sierra Leone, are vulnerable to instability due to current regional and global trends. Our country’s recent past has taught us that women and girls suffer most during conflicts or unrest. They faced the highest level of abuse and had their rights violated in many ways, including rape, torture, sex slaves, and being used as human shields. We saw how the brutal war wrecked our beloved country and exposed our compatriots, primarily women and children, to extreme levels of poverty while many others still reel from the scars and emotional trauma left behind by the war.
In 2022, when Sierra Leone was making headways in protecting the rights of women and girls, the UN Women reported that over 600 million more women and girls lived in conflict-affected countries in 2022. This is a significant 50 percent rise since 2017 and increases the challenges nations face in protecting the rights of women and girls.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission said conflict or instability can result in higher levels of gender-based violence against women and girls, including arbitrary killings, torture, and sexual violence. The commission also said girls can face additional obstacles in accessing education, citing fears of targeted attacks and threats against them, while adult women are forced to look for alternative sources of livelihood as family survival comes to depend heavily on them.
For Sierra Leone, our brutal past has helped us collectively find renewed hope in building a better country and working together to preserve its peace and stability. Governments and ordinary citizens continue to play their respective roles in shaping the future of this great nation.
Amid the current global challenges, our government, through my husband’s leadership, has prioritized critical development agendas like food security, climate change, and women’s empowerment to frog-leap Sierra Leone into a prosperous country.
But we must build this prosperity on something other than unstable grounds. As First Lady, I believe that rewriting Sierra Leone’s history is our collective responsibility. Our nation’s current stability has allowed our young girls to access education. It has allowed for the participation of more women in governance and decision-making. It has significantly reduced levels of gender-based violence and provided platforms for women and girls to speak up and take bold actions.
For me, prioritizing peace and stability is to protect the rights and the future of the women and girls of this country. Looking back where we were ten or twenty years ago, I am delighted to see how far we have come as a nation. I am proud of the gains we have made so far.
We must not relent and allow these gains to slip under our feet. We must continue to strive to protect this country because it is the only place we will ever call home.
May God bless you all, and may God bless and protect our beloved Sierra Leone.
H.E Dr. Fatima Maada Bio
First Lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone.