“The key to improving the lives of all Sierra Leoneans and fast tracking sustainable development lies in improving the lives of women and their children and the key to improving the lives of women and their children is ensuring that governance and public policy reflect the lives of women and children and the key to ensuring that governance and public policy reflect the lives of women and children lies in increasing the representation of women in government. That is what 50/50 is about and what all Sierra Leoneans should be about. ……”

– Ayisha Osori

On 7TH March 2018, Sierra Leone goes to the polls to elect a President, Members of Parliament and local Councilors. Another chapter in the country’s democratic history will be written as we exercise our right to vote and choose our leaders. The question is: “What happened to all the enthusiastic women who had dreams of becoming aspirants representing the various parties? One cannot help but wonder why, in Sierra Leone where over half of the registered voters are women, a large majority of female aspirants have been denied symbols?  Add to that the fact that the number of female candidates standing for local and national elections has significantly declined and one begins to wonder what the reasons are for this negative trend and what should be done to increase women’s political representation.

In democratic societies, the legislature should mirror the demographic composition of the state. The state of gender equity is one of these fundamental mirrors of society. In almost all African countries, Sierra Leone being one of them, women comprise over fifty percent of the population.

The African Union (AU) has set a standard of gender parity in political representation for its member states. Of the fifty countries with the highest representation of women in parliament, thirteen are in Africa. Consequently, women’s representation in Parliament on the African continent is higher than in most parts of the world. This number continues to rise.

Gender balance in political participation and decision-making is the internationally agreed target set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the old Millennium Development Goals. The current Sustainable Development Goals recognise that working towards more women in decision-making positions is crucial. The global standard used to assess how we are progressing in this is the number of women involved in law-making within national law-making institutions.

As of June 2017, only two countries in the world have fifty per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses. Among these are Rwanda (the highest ranking in the world with 61.3%), and Bolivia with 53.1 per cent. Many countries like South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Namibia and Lesotho have attained thirty per cent or more.

Sierra Leone has however lagged behind as there were only 12.1 % women in parliament in 2017, well below the sub-Saharan average of 20%. The first time a woman was elected to Parliament was in 1957 under the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Eighteen years later in 1985, this number was increased by three under the All People’s Congress (APC) one-party rule.  The introduction of multi-party politics in 1996 was another turning point in the history of women’s political participation in Sierra Leone. For the first time a woman contested the 1996 and 2002 Presidential elections compared to fourteen and seven men, respectively.  In 2002, Sierra Leone had a woman as Vice Presidential Running Mate for the first time. In 2007, although no woman vied for the Presidency, three, however, aspired for the Vice Presidential Candidate position, with only one victor from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Party. Despite these efforts Sierra Leone is yet to have either a female President or Vice-President.

In all four Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2012, women’s representation has been far below the 30% minimum recommended by the Beijing Platform for Action or that of Commonwealth Gender Ministers. In 1996 five out of the 80 Parliamentary seats were won by women; this accounted for a mere 6.5 % of all Parliamentarians. In 2002 however, there was great improvement in the number of women Parliamentarians from 5 to 19 (including two women Paramount Chiefs). This accounted for about 15.3% of all Parliamentarians, with an increase of 8.8%. The Deputy Speaker then, was a woman. Six of the twenty-three Chairpersons of the Parliamentary Committees were women, heading the Committees of Agriculture, Food Security, Health and Sanitation, Education, Science and Technology, Public Accounts, Information and Communication and HIV/AIDS.

This figure dropped by 1.6% from 19 to 17 (13.7%) women, after the 2007 Parliamentary elections. There were no female Paramount Chiefs and the Deputy Speaker was no longer a woman. The number of women Chairpersons of Parliamentary Committees also dropped from six to five (Health and Sanitation, Marine Resources, Human Rights, Gender and Children’s Affairs and HIV/AIDS), out of a total of thirty.

In 2006, the nominations were 106 (15%) women out of 709 total nominations, compared to what it is today. In the forthcoming elections, there are only about 7% women of the approved nominations by all parties for parliament. This obviously takes us backwards. These numbers can only mean a further drop in women’s representation in the new parliament, post- March 2018. This means that Sierra Leone will not even come close to meeting its MDG target of 30% women in parliament by 2018, let alone its AU/SADC target of 50% by the same year.

What accounts for this low showing of female candidates in the political sphere in Sierra Leone and why is Sierra Leone lagging behind most of its African peers? Among the many reasons that can be proffered for this state of affairs are:

  • Many female aspirants have dual citizenship
  • Many did not resign from their jobs at the time stipulated
  • Most female candidates lack the financial backing to run a campaign
  • Party nominating committees lack confidence in women as ‘winning’ candidates
  • The political environment is driven by a “Who-you-know syndrome; voters tend to elect  known male candidates rather than new women candidates.
  • Women are just not tough enough to make it through what is considered a hostile political race
  • Many highly capable women leaders prefer leadership roles in the private sector and non-government arena rather than in politics.

Similar issues confront women in politics the world over, but some countries have put in place measures that break through these structural, cultural and other barriers, in a bid to increase women’s representation in political office. Sierra Leone’s story is different, however. The recently concluded Constitutional Review Commission recommended a minimum 30% quota representation in the Draft Revised Constitution – something Sierra Leonean women have been striving for since 2002. This was rejected by the Cabinet Committee. Add to this, the untenable situation that a significant number of women have once again been denied symbols by their political parties and we begin to see why Sierra Leone is not counted among the leaders in women’s political representation in Africa.

Win Sierra Leone, women’s financial contributions and savings form the economic backbone of the household, the informal sector and rural economies; their investments send children to school and ensure that they are better fed and kept healthy. Women the world over, including in Sierra Leone, have led movements for social and political change.  The 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone has been at the forefront in doing this since its inception in 2001. Through the efforts of women, the country has made gains in the democratic and development processes since 2002. This is evidenced by the peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another over the years.

Since 1979, thirty-two countries, over 60% of which are in developing countries, have had female presidents and prime ministers. Where countries have created an enabling environment, traditional norms and practices have been overcome and women have been empowered to contest and win elections. Admittedly, the barriers that must be brought down are numerous and the process of doing so cannot be left to social and cultural change alone. So for Sierra Leone to stop this slide into male-dominated politics and ensure the full political roles and contributions of over half of its population, the country should consider the following tried-and-tested policy and legislative actions:

First, affirmative action must be seen as a necessary tool for initiating  and maintaining a given number of seats for women in local councils and in the national parliament. Most countries that have achieved significant increase in women’s political participation have done so through the use of such quota systems. Quotas aim at ensuring that women constitute at least a large minority of twenty, thirty or forty -percent, or even to ensure full gender parity of fifty percent. In some countries quotas are applied as a temporary measure, until the barriers to women’s entry into politics are completely removed. Rwanda remains number one in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation (61.3%), through the use of a constitutional quota.

Three types of gender quotas are used in politics: reserved parliamentary seats as defined by the constitution; legislatively determined political party candidate quotas; voluntary, but publicly-monitored political party quotas. Studies have confirmed that quotas fast-track women’s representation. Second, the political party regulation commission that supports and regulates the role and functioning of political parties, including setting standards for internal democracy, transparency and inclusivity, must act. They must set standards that include specific gender considerations in party structures and operations. This would comprise measures that ensure that women candidates get a fair share of party nominations, establishing rules-of-the-game for campaign financing that also supports less well-off candidates and ensuring a broader party commitment to support aspiring female candidates.

Third, civil society groups, including non-governmental organizations, volunteer bodies and women’s movements, as well as male leaders championing the cause, can play a pivotal role in advancing women’s political representation. These individuals and groups can effectively extend women candidates’ voices and exposure, particularly at grass-roots level, and ensure broader community awareness. Their role is also critical in more broadly enhancing women’s literacy and civic education, initiating young aspiring female candidates into the local political networks and public dialogue spaces, and supporting movements for social change that address the deeper cultural norms that are hidden barriers to women’s political roles.

Fourth, the mass media has a significant role to play in recognizing the equal value and dignity of men and women and to adequately inform the public about the rights and roles of women in society. If local and national media organizations play their role responsibly, they can help break negative stereotypes, construct positive public image, convey balanced and positive stories and provide the airtime and editorial space for women candidates and their campaigns, thus keeping this issue on the national transformation agenda.

Fifth, the bottom line is one of social justice and fair play – equal access to resources, dignity and respect in the political arena, which a society must demand and its leaders must demonstrate and a culture of tolerance for diversity and difference, are just some of the fundamental values and principles that will engage and entice more women to contest elections.

The visible role and engagement of more women in politics is a clear signal to the country and to the rest of the world, of the state of a society’s long-term health and stability. Men and women bring different experiences, ideas and perspectives to the seats of decision-making and policy making. Keeping women away from elected bodies and limiting their political and policy-making contributions diminishes the democratic space and holds back human development. On all counts, having more women in political office is good for Sierra Leone if the country is to take its place alongside the many countries in the region, and be counted among the more gender inclusive democracies of the world. This is long overdue and would be most welcome.

Sierra Leonean women have come a long way, through many tribulations and frustrations, to get to where they are today. Although women in Sierra Leone can be found in all sectors of the political spectrum and levels, and although their participation in some institutions in decision-making has been impressive, yet their level of political participation is still far from satisfactory and well below international requirements. In short, women have not yet arrived, despite the fact that Sierra Leone is signatory to almost all the major international treaties and conventions on gender equality, human rights and development.

This indefensible situation must be changed. Women must be given their fair share of the national and international space and opportunity to harness and develop their talents, capabilities and abilities for their own and that of their country’s development. Women are half of the world’s most valuable resource. Not wanting to tap this resource is a clear indication that the political will to develop this nation is absent.

– By Dr. Mrs. Nemata Majeks-Walker