Sierra Leone

The Second Sex Comes to the Fore

Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone's future is hers, too: A refugee and her baby in Loungi, Sierra Leone return home (Photo: AFP).

The women trooped to the National Elections Office in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and 12 other district offices in the country’s interior on April 2—nomination day—chanting, “Here we come!” and “This is the day!” They had one aim in mind: to end male dominance of politics in this West African nation.

“This time we are going to give these male politicians a good run for their money and make them realize that we are a force to reckon with,” says Nemata Eshun-Baiden, the vibrant founder of the 50/50 Group. The group was formed to seek an equal share of power between the sexes in the country’s political system, which has been dominated by men for more than 40 years. It aims for at least one-third female representation in Sierra Leone’s enlarged 124-seat legislature.

With parliamentary and presidential elections set for May 14—the first since 1996—the 50/50 Group hopes for change when the country’s 2.27 million voters go to the polls. Eshun-Baiden calls the women’s turnout on April 2 “a striking and encouraging success,” but adds, “there is still much more to be done.

Months before nomination day, we have been able to wrest commitments from leaders of 11 political parties to have at least 50-percent representation of women in their party list. Some even went as far as to assure us of using the system of one man, one woman.”
Sixty women are running as political candidates this election in a bid to capture a seat in Parliament or as the next president. “Past parliaments in Sierra Leone have shown dismal figures for women representatives,” says Beresford Cummings, a retired parliamentary record clerk. “The last Parliament, which became defunct on March 28 [2002], had only 10 women among the 75 male parliamentarians with two senior ministers of government and two deputies.”

Economic Development Minister Kadie Sesay, one of the two most senior women Cabinet ministers, believes that “what women want is meaningful and equitable partnership with our menfolk in the furtherance of development of the country.”

Raju Bendre of the British Council in Sierra Leone adds: “Women in Sierra Leone have shown a lot of knowledge and are capable of scoring remarkable political success. Lack of full opportunity for women to participate in representative government is one of the most serious problems facing the country.” That is what drives parliamentary aspirant Satta Amara. “I am contesting the election to help change the ills that [have] plagued the nation for many years,” she said.

Despite this, women have made few inroads in Sierra Leone’s presidential race. In the nomination exercise, only one female presidential candidate has come forward, while two other women have been chosen as presidential running mates.

The only woman seeking the presidency, former human rights activist Zainab Bangura, heads the Movement for Progress Party (MOPP). She chose another woman, Debora Salam, as her running mate. MOPP’S political structure is half women, and women top the list of its parliamentary candidates. United National People’s Party (UNPP) leader John Karefa-Smart chose woman candidate Memunatu Conteh as his running mate.

The 50/50 Group says it is drawing on the “success of Commonwealth countries like Mozambique and New Zealand.” Mozambique tops the list of African countries with 30-percent female parliamentarians, while New Zealand has 30.8. Sweden remains the world leader with 42.7 percent of its parliamentarians women.

“We are continuing the political education among grassroots women,” Eshun-Baiden says. “We have also extended the group to the student population of 10 tertiary institutions in the country, and we are developing a women’s manifesto on women’s concerns.”

Although many women say in the coming election they would “no longer keep their heads low but raise them high,” others dismiss the 50/50 idea as “a political gimmick by women of intellectual caliber to hoodwink their less-favored kin.” “Give them your vote and they turn out to be worse than the men,” says market-woman Titi Turay. Her colleague Binti Fofanah adds: “They just want to quench their political thirst [by getting into] Parliament.”

But for Yeabu Sesay, the 50/50 Group’s demands “may be a good idea for my children. My own role for now remains in the home to take care of the family.”

Others show varying levels of support. “Let them go ahead without me. I wish them luck,” library assistant Sarah Peters says, while hairdresser Fatu Koroma is so zealous about the idea that she says: “I agree with the 50/50 percent idea 300 percent.”

The weekly New Citizen newspaper, traditionally a stout defender of women’s rights, has strong support for equal representation. “We have argued time and again that we should not reduce our womenfolk to mere cooks and dancers to hail male politicians when it comes to political participation,” the newspaper stated. “Our women are bona fide citizens who are also protected by the state constitution. They have a right to hold even the highest public office and to contest elections.”

Others anticipate women’s success in Sierra Leone’s political future. “Women surely will have faltering steps in the beginning,” veteran politician Benjamin Jackson says, “but they certainly will make a huge impact on the voting population.”

Political analyst Patrick Lewis shares a similar view. “Voters will definitely have reason to make a change,” he said. “Men have been on the political scene since independence [in 1961], and all voters have for it are mismanagement, corruption, tribalism, and war. The rebel war was male-dominat-ed, and the warring factions were headed by men.”

Sierra Leone has been wracked by civil war since 1991, when rebels took up arms to try and topple the government. The decade-long conflict devastated the country, leaving thousands maimed, displaced, or dead, before the government and the rebels finally agreed to a cease-fire in May 2001.

“The women can use this as a trump card to appeal to the electorate to make a change,” Lewis concludes.