From Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown

Local News
In Sierra Leone, Bernadette Lahai Defends Judiciary as Chief Justice Reconciles with Madam Torto
By Augustine Samba
Jun 9, 2010, 17:16

Hon. Dr. Bernadette Lahai has yesterday stated that the Judiciary should not be blamed for the discrimination against women seeking to contest Paramount Chief elections in certain places in Sierra Leone. Instead, Dr. Lahai blamed the country’s laws which upholds such discrimination under the banner of tradition and culture.

Hon. Lahai was speaking at an occasion yesterday that saw the country’s first female Chief Justice, Her Lady the Hon. Umu-Hawa Tejan-Jalloh give a warm public embrace to the famous Madam Sia Elizabeth Torto which embrace was seen as a sign of reconciliation against the backdrop of a protest that had been held in honour of Madam Torto in front of the Chief Justice’s office a few months back.

Dr. Bernadette Lahai made this pronouncement on Tuesday 8th June 2010, at the launching of the Sierra Leone Action Plan (SiLNAP) for the full implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and 1820, at the Miatta Conference Hall in Freetown.

Madam Elizabeth Sia Torto shedding bitter tears on the Podium yesterday in Freetown as she explained how she could no longer enter her Nimiyama Chiefdom

In support of Dr. Lahai, the Chief Justice, who yesterday made a rare exception of subjecting herself to public questioning by curious Sierra Leonean women, answered to a question on the treatment of Madam Torto by the Judiciary by saying "the Judiciary is required to work within the ambit of the Constitution and has no power to go beyond its mandate".

It will be recalled that whilst Section 27 of the National Constitution of Sierra Leone bans discrimination based on gender, it has a caveat in Section 27(4)(e) that makes it legal to discriminate against someone based on their gender if local cultures and traditions dictate so. It is this caveat that has been misused to discriminate against women seeking paramount chief positions by male chauvinists in the name of culture and tradition and which the Judiciary is unfortunately not empowered to challenge. Only the Parliament can change the Law.

Yesterday’s issue was brought to light by many observers and sympathizers after listening to the pathetic story of Madam Torto who was discriminated, dehumanized and forced to flee by her compatriots only because she planned to contest in the Chieftaincy election of her indigenous and bona fide Nimiyama Chiefdom in the Kono District. Madam Sia Torto became famous when she attempted to challenge the discrimination at the Law Courts only to be frustrated by a High Court Ruling that angered women so much at the time that they stormed the streets in front of the Law Courts with placards.

However, according to the Chief Justice, the law makers were those who compounded the discrimination of women, not the courts.

Earlier, Hon. Dr. Lahai told the important guests, including the UN’s ERSG Ambassador Schulenburg, the Minister of Social Welfare, Women’s and Childien’s Affairs Dr. Soccoh Kabia, civil societies, local and international NGOs, that when the Chieftaincy Act was laid before them in Parliament, the female MPs were highly marginalized when they were debating on the section that can allow women to contest in Chieftaincy Election.

"Women have the rights to contest in chiefdoms BUT only if the tradition demands" said Hon. Lahai adding that, the laws as currently crafted were limiting the rights of many women of today and in the future. She said it was very timely for all stakeholders to come together and help revisit the discriminatory laws and acts, in order to make them more "women friendly".

It was however disclosed by Madan Torto in a pool of tears that the men in her chiefdom are using the poro secret society to make her go away from her home, any time she gets there.

"The last time when I went there with some UN officials and NGOs, to make peace. I was chased to leave by the poro men," she said amidst bitter tears that saw many women in the audience cry alongside with her yesterday.

Sia Torto wept and wept whilst standing on the Podium as she said "I am now a displaced person in Freetown as I cannot go home to Nimiyama". Since the election was held, she had made several attempts to go back to her town, but to no avail. Even though she is a daughter of a late paramount chief, her attempt to challenge the status qup as preferred by the Poro men is deemed to be unforgivable enough to banish her from her own father’s chiefdom.

Meanwhile, many women in the audience were emotional when the Chief Justice later walked over to Madam Torto and gave her a warm reconciliatory embrace that was warmly returned by Madam Torto.

© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.