The First Lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Her Excellency Fatima Jabbie Bio, has called on Members of the Economic Community of West African States Female Parliamentarians Association (ECOFEPA) and Leaders of the Continent to support girls education by providing free sanitary pads for school girls, protect victims of sexual and gender-based and collectively support each other.
Madam Bio was speaking at the 4th edition of the ECOFEPA Townhall meeting on the theme, “Rejuvenating Democracy by giving voice to the young people,” and sub-theme, “ Stimulating a National Dynamics for the Identification of Potential Young Leaders,” held on the 31st March 2021 at the Bintumani Conference Hall, Aberdeen Freetown.
In her keynote address, First Lady Bio said: “Before I leave you, I want to talk to the honorable parliamentarians of our continent. It is an issue that has started for the last three years under my watch, that is the issue of making sure that all of our girls have the opportunity to have free sanitary pads.”
Madam Bio said this is very paramount because while she was going around the country on the Handoff Our Girls campaign, “ I then realize that we have girls that can’t go to school just because of lack of simple sanitary pads.”
“If a girl misses out of school seven days a week, for twelve months, that girl has missed a whole term, just because of lack of sanitary pads. I went out and did very critical fundraising that some women of this country even criticized. Today, as I go around this country, looking at those children they now reeducate me. Some kids have told me that when they see their menstruation in school, they don’t have anything to use so they cut off pages from their exercise books, fold that paper, and put them into their pants to protect themselves until they get home. These kids are telling me that when they used clothes as pads to come to school when on menstruation, the smell that comes out, it makes them not to go next to their classmates because they will laugh at them. These same kids are now telling me when their uniforms get wet in school, boys and girls are laughing at them, provoking them, and sometimes when that child leave that school, they don’t come back again out of shame,” Madam Bio said.
Madam Bio however urged the gathering to provide sanitary pads for girls wherever they are noting that condoms are used for optional reasons, “ but having sex is a choice, but seeing our menstruation is not a choice for a woman.”
“Our menstruation is part of our body and there is nothing that we can do about it. Now, if you want to have sex they are giving you a condom freely but that is your choice. But if we all lend our voices to this; and get every other First Lady to understand the need of providing free sanitary pads to our girls, in the last five months, England has declared free sanitary pads because this woman who is standing here is a vuvuzela.”
She explained that other countries are doing similar programs citing that Iceland, Scotland New Zealand, Switzerland, are on the verge of declaring the same thing for girls.
“ I think Africa, as the Heads of State, are now pushing for COVID-19 vaccines, now ladies, let us push for free sanitary pads for our kids to go to school, so we can keep them in school. The only equality that we can give to these girls is to make sure that they stay in school and get the same quality of education as the men and that is the only time they will also stand the test of time. If we have our girls missing out in school for a whole term and we expect them to get the same quality education as the boys, we are misleading ourselves. Even Sierra Leone here that the President is giving free quality education; with free quality education and you cannot come to school because of menstruation, now what is free and quality about an education that you spend half of the term in the house.”
First Lady Bio said: “I am asking every female parliamentarian to make this, Ministers, female Ministers that have the voice, to change people’s perceptions about women. Menstruation is not a choice, it is part of our body, and we should not be ashamed to talk about it, just as we should not be ashamed to protect girls that are being raped, we should be able to protect them and be able to fight for them.” This, Madam Bio said is a job of satisfaction to bring change to the world and not for money, calling on women to support and not victimize abused children and women by putting pressure on the judiciary for them to understand that women and girls have had enough, “ and justice should be given to these girls and women.”
Madam Bio said the fight for women and girls emancipation is not alone fight adding that fifty-two percent of the continent is made up of women, “ and I think it is even high time for us to ask the United Nations to give us a day when women and girls or victims of abuses will call their own day. A day that they can speak up, recognize one and another, look at each other, and have solidarity with one another. You will not understand being a victim unless you are a victim, so supporting and protecting is not a First Lady’s job, it is a national duty, and I hope that we see that as a national duty and we all work for that because as heads of your nation you should know what is a priority. Priority is protecting our girls to meet the 2050/ youngest population projection in the African continent.”
Madam Bio said that a useful and youthful population is one with quality education.
Highlighting the issues and challenges confronted by women, Madam Bio implored her counterparts to support themselves considering the fact that they make up the bulk of the population in Sierra Leone and the globe.
The First Lady said: “Women, we are our own enemies, we are the reason why we are still unable to get fifty percent,” adding that women are not supportive to each other.
Madam Bio noted that the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign started as a national campaign but today it is global urging other First Ladies to channel their agendas on girls, “ because what it means to be the First Lady if you cannot protect your own children, our girls, and that is the reason why I traveled the length and breadth of this country. I go out to every community and place that I can reach, not because I want to be seen but I did not have that opportunity while I was going to school.”
It was apparent that the occasion witnessed a welcome address and goodwill messages from President ECOFEPA, Hon. Filomena Viera Martins, Hon. Veronica Kadie Sesay – President Sierra Leone Female Parliamentary Caucus, a representative from the European Union, UNDP, Women’s Forum Sierra Leone – Maude Peacock.
ECOFEPA’s 2nd Vice President Sen. Biodun Christine Olujimi presented an overview, rationale, and expected outcome which she said was to discuss and report on the outcome of the deliberations.
His Excellency Hon. Sidie Mohamed Tunis remarked with a commitment and assurances to the women in the championing of the issues outlined for deliberation, wishing them all the best.
During the deliberations, a panel discussion on the sub-theme, ‘The SDG Decade of Action in stimulating a national dynamics for the identification of potential young leaders, a brief synopsis of political journeys, personal life experiences, and business lessons, a group work to develop a roadmap to stimulate a national dynamics for the identification of potential young leaders was done.
Members of the audience also posed questions around the low representation of young people in parliaments and governments in the sub-region, etc.
By Melvin Tejan Mansaray