The evolution of female employment by Aimee Sheriff

If employment can be defined as having paid work, it would imply a situation whereby one provides services in exchange for pay. In this regard, there is a misguided but widely held belief that employment relates mainly to office or manufacturing based work, and almost exclusively to the experiences of one singular culture, the Western culture. Whatever the case, and in truth with income generating effort, one can either be employed by others or be self-employed. As such, employment connotes empowerment and can be enabling to the human condition. The lack of jobs in any society can result in a decrease in individuals’ self-confidence as they find themselves in helpless situations unable to add any value to society, and consequently losing the respect of others.

Historically, the employment status of Sierra Leonean women for instance, has been quite interesting in what can be aptly described as a largely monocultural society. Though these women have not been formally employed, the vast majority have formed the bedrock of the informal economy in a largely impoverished country. Many women work in trades such as farming, fishing and other artisanal occupations like weaving, clothing, mining etc. There is concrete evidence that many women in Sierra Leone are the main breadwinners and home makers. In several cases where the ‘formal’ heads of household (men) have not managed to gain employment in a country with huge challenges including high unemployment rate, (like in the case of other African tribes such as the Yorubas’ of Nigeria), the “weaker” gender has been a major economic player. In traditional Sierra Leonean societies, women make an equal contribution in the main economic activity of the day. i.e. farming. Women do not only care for children and raise cattle but are also a major source of labour in farms. In that regard, it could be argued that Sierra Leonean women contribute far more than their male counterparts, for they do not only do all the domestic chores, care for children but are also an equal contributor of other much needed labour.

Over time, the employment situation of women in Sierra Leone is said to have evolved. See the Cherie Blair Foundation website for more information.

This is as a result of the increase in urbanisation of manySsierra Leonean traditional societies. In short, the migration of younger Sierra Leonean men into urban areas of the country looking for work has left a good number of women as the main breadwinners with an increased burden of sustaining the family. This trend particularly burgeoned in the aftermath of the civil war, and there is no sign of it curtailing what with the new presentiments of the national economic agenda in the extraction industry.

By and large, soon after the end of the war, women became increasingly aware that the largely male dominated ruling class had failed to prevent the country from descending into chaos. Invariably, that feeling led to the rise of feminist activism, emboldening women to engage far and beyond the domestic discourse; extending to various other economic viabilities, and somehow thrusting women into the previously ‘unthinkable’ sea of political discourse. These changes were largely facilitated by NGO’s and other ‘not for profit’ ventures. The promotion of micro-credit with other poverty reduction tools managed by the third sector (CSOs and grassroots movements), and entrepreneurship education targeting women led to a considerable improvement in the lot of many women in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Considering that women form the backbone of African families, the improvement in the financial situation of Sierra Leonean women inevitably resulted in general poverty reduction in and around the country.

These actions are helping to bring about the deconstruction of other patriarchal structures which were prevalent in pre-conflict Sierra Leone. The mass displacement and migration of men is resulting in a society that is becoming predominantly maintained by women who have stepped up to take responsibility for what traditionally was a man’s role.

With all of this, there are significant challenges for redressing the balance. Women have needed to develop themselves so as to successfully contribute to society in a way that traditionally they have not done before. One of the most self-development tools is education. As more and more women gain education, they are becoming more and more empowered thereby improving their employability in different sectors including the formal business sector.

Overall, these efforts together with the global paradigm shift have led to the creation of various women’s rights movements advocating for the increase in the role of women in all sections of government i.e. the legislative, executive and the judiciary; and indeed after the war many women were appointed to cabinet positions. Many more were elected into the House of Parliament and the highest position in the judiciary at present is held by a female. On this trajectory, the quest to achieve equality for women in Sierra Leone is on the right track and is bound to be successful.  We are set to become a very different society from what we were only a few generations ago. An equal society where women continue to contribute to economic development and are receiving their fair share of recognition.


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