Despite being unanimously approved by the country’s parliament, a bill legalizing abortion in Sierra Leone has once again been vetoed by the country’s president over “religious concerns.” The issue of abortion in the country has caused a continuous firestorm for years, but particularly since January when the country’s leading religious organization vowed to put as much pressure as it could on the president to veto this particular bill.
Religious leaders unanimously voted against the measure at an interfaith summit. Almost immediately after the summit, religious groups started large-scale protests over the bill despite intense pressure from abortion rights groups in the country being put on the president to sign the measure. Rights groups were optimistic about the bill’s prospects since the country had just ratified the Maputo Protocol on Women in July 2015, a document that upholds equal rights and encourages the empowerment of women.
Despite a growing consensus on women’s rights in general, however, right-wing distortions of religion continue to make the expansion of reproductive rights difficult of not impossible for the African nation. Opposition to the bill brought Christians and Muslims together throughout the country not just during their interfaith summit but right up to the bill’s final veto in a last-minute push that shocked many in the country who thought the issue had finally been put to rest.
To be fair, Christians and Muslims have come together in Sierra Leone, for much less contentious and regressive causes, such as fighting malaria and the spread of other diseases throughout the country, and the country is in fact known for a degree of religious tolerance not found in many neighboring states. But that doesn’t mean it has anything close to a stellar record on women’s rights.
Human rights abuses are not particularly new to Sierra Leone. The mineral mining boom in the country has resulted in thousands of people being forcibly relocated and losing their ability to work the land for sustenance. This is only the latest of abuses in a country that has been recovering from a nine-year long civil war during which human rights were at best a distant memory and sexual abuse was regularly used as a weapon. After the war international organizations have moved the government in a more liberal direction, winning substantial victories for the rights of women in 2007.
But stability and the rights that often come with it take time. the democratically elected government, which has been in power since 2007, still forbids pregnant women and girls from taking exams or attending school. Many women in the country still live on land organized under “traditional land structures” which do not recognize a woman’s right to own property.
The good news here is simple and direct: veto or no, the government of the country is finally ready to recognize common human and reproductive rights. Under Sierra Leone’s constitution, the president is given a veto power even in the face of unanimously passed laws, but progress has been made despite that on women’s rights in the country. We know the emotions abortion can evoke even in fully developed countries like our own, and its legalization will remain a primary objective of rights groups in Sierra Leone, but we should take heart that, only thirteen years after a devastating civil war, the country can begin expanding human rights without shots being fired.
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia