In 2008, parliamentarians entering the Santomean National Assembly encountered photos of injured domestic violence survivors on the corridor walls. Maria das Neves, the first female Prime Minister of São Tomé and Príncipe organized the photo gallery to raise awareness about domestic violence in the country. She was the only woman in the 55-member Parliament at the time. This display was crucial to elevating a specialized domestic violence law to the top of the country’s legislative agenda. Two female lawyers, Célia Posser and Ilza dos Santos Amado Vaz, drafted the law, which signaled the strong and active participation of Santomean women in putting gender equality front and center.
The Global Indicators Brief “Legal reforms to protect women at home and at work in São Tomé and Príncipe” discusses the efforts to draft and approve Law. No. 11/2008 on domestic and family violence, popularly known as “Lei Maria das Neves”.
Fifteen years after the enactment of this important legislation, we, the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law team, invited Maria das Neves and Célia Posser to discuss the way forward for Santomean women and girls, including the need to update the legal text of Law No. 11/2008 to address persistent challenges.
Our conversation took place during a webinar that the Women, Business and the Law team hosted on February 8th, 2023, with civil society and nongovernmental organizations, representatives of the private sector, and law practitioners from São Tomé and Príncipe. , such as female financial inclusion.
The following three key takeaways emerged from our conversation with Maria Das Neves and Célia Posser:
1. The criminal justice system needs further reform to be more effective at preventing violence against women.
During the last fifteen years, the reality for Santomean women and girls has changed a lot. The number of domestic violence cases reported to the National Police continues to rise despite the enactment of laws protecting women (see Figure 1).
Maria das Neves and Célia hypothesize that more women have stepped forward and reported domestic violence to the police now that they have legal protection. However, this alarming trend requires additional measures to make legal protection more effective in preventing the prevalence of domestic violence cases.
“Unfortunately, the implementation of the domestic violence law has not been the best. We are thinking of revising the criminal code to include the crime of domestic violence,” stated Célia. She explained that the crime of domestic violence has only been codified by a specific criminal law that establishes sentences of up to 16 years of incarceration for offenders. Since many judges in São Tomé and Príncipe still refer to the Penal Code, which applies less severe sentences to aggressors, it is crucial to raise awareness and make judges familiar with the specific law on domestic violence. Célia also mentioned . Maria das Neves added that only proper and fast sanctioning will continue to incentivize survivors to report these crimes. Also, she reaffirmed that the criminal justice system needs better mechanisms to ensure the timely processing of such cases for women to have continued protection under the law.
2. Adopting better laws requires gender representation in the decision-making process.
After the enactment of the law on domestic and family violence in 2008, São Tomé and Príncipe had a series of reforms that helped the country to advance the gender equality agenda. As a result, the country’s score on the Women, Business and the Law Index increased by 29.3 points from 53.8 in 2008 to 83.1 in 2023 (see Figure 2). Reforms included the setting up a new Criminal Code (enactment of Law No. 6/2012) and promulgating a new Labor Code (enactment of Law No. 06/2019). The Labor Code introduced provisions protecting women from sexual harassment in employment, as well as criminal penalties for such cases.
São Tomé and Príncipe adopted the Parity Law at the end of 2022. The legal text guarantees 40% gender representation in central and regional government, parliament, and in the directorates of public administration. The aim of this law is to guarantee women’s full and effective participation in public life and create more opportunities to promote gender equality. The discussants emphasized that women's representation in legislatures is crucial for ensuring that laws and policies reflect the needs and perspectives of all citizens. Yet they noted that one of the biggest challenges to implementing this law is raising women’s awareness that they are now granted more access to decision-making positions, and that women should stand for those positions. “Civil society has a great role in raising women's awareness, in convincing them to participate in politics, in training them, and helping them win,” said Maria das Neves.
3. How can we advance the gender equality agenda? Financial inclusion, informality, and education.
The discussants noted other issues that multilateral organizations should address to promote gender equality in the country−women’s financial inclusion, the high levels of women’s participation in the informal economy, and the lack of access to quality education. All are subjects that still need to be discussed and developed.and contribute to society.
This webinar provided us an excellent opportunity to assess Santomean legal frameworks, identify gaps, and work towards improving women’s lives. Though obstacles to gender equality remain, the case of São Tomé and Príncipe shows that over time, legal barriers can be challenged, and laws can be amended to promote gender equality.
Visit the Women, Business and the Law website to access country and region-specific data, to understand the importance of gender equality for economic development. Specific information related to São Tomé and Príncipe can be found in this case study and blog post.
The Women, Business, and the Law team is grateful to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for its generous support for a series of civil society and private sector engagement workshops across Sub-Saharan Africa.