By Aminata Phidelia Allie
I have always imagined a Sierra Leone with a female president. I have imagined a cabinet and Parliament dominated by women. Of course there will be a lot of noise and well, sometimes malice, but I know that women are capable of putting their differences aside for the greater good.
Women are naturally the caretakers of children and elders in every country of the world. International studies show that when the economy and political organizations of a society change, women take the lead in helping the families adjust to new realities and changes.
Sierra Leone, like many other countries of the world, is a male chauvinistic society. Men are traditionally seen as the movers and shakers of the society. They are meant to take part in politics while the women support whatever choice the men make. Though a few women have risen to the challenge of standing chest to chest with their male counterparts in the past, their actions have yet to change the perspective of the traditional Sierra Leonean who believes that a woman standing shoulder to shoulder with a man is untamed. But who says a woman cannot be a change-maker and remain submissive? This is a topic for another day.
Sierra Leonean women have a distinguished history of involvement in pre-independence politics. Unfortunately, the country’s two-colored political history and one-party authoritarianism in the post-independence era, has entangled women’s political growth and activism.
Despite the engagement of Sierra Leonean women in the country’s peace building process and efforts to increase women’s participation in public life, they face difficulties today in entering parliamentary and presidential politics. Even their political appointments into strategic positions of government are marred by negative reactions and difficult tenures. Since the end of the country’s brutal civil war in 2002, Sierra Leone has held four national elections, with preparations for a fifth underway in 2023.
Though women account for 52 percent of the total population in Sierra Leone, they occupy less than 20 percent of elected positions. Their voice, visibility, participation, and representation in elective and appointment positions remain very low compared to men. Key reasons accounting for this under-representation included lack of economic independence, high illiteracy and entrenched customs and traditions, and the lack of confidence to vie for public positions; according to an USAID report on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
When the move by women to demand a 30 percent Quota for women representation in governance started in 2010, it was meant to be a temporary solution to the incessant discrimination against women who dared to challenge the status-quo of male chauvinism. In 2012, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) Bill was put forward under former President Ernest Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) administration. However, several political obstacles delayed it being passed into Law. A lot happened in the years that followed but with a change of government in 2018, women and activist groups revamped the campaign with the hope to lastingly improve the broader socio-economic conditions that lower women’s representation and hinder the equitable distribution of political influence.
In July 2018, the Cabinet, under President Julius Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) administration adopted the Bill to set aside 30 percent of all elective and public offices for women. The Cabinet then had only 18 percent female representation. This means that the country women should make up 30 percent of Members of Parliament, 30 percent of Members of Cabinet, and 30 percent of all public Service appointments. Now imagine this actually happening!
Hypothetically, if a party presents a male flag bearer, it should present a female running-mate, and vice versa. Every strategic political position should be able to push women to the limelight. If this had happened, I am sure Sierra Leone would either have a female president by now or be getting ready to elect a female president. A female president would, no matter under which of the two political parties, would bring a breath of fresh air into the country’s political landscape. It will change the political history forever, in a good way.
The two major parties, the All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), have been discussing affirmative action to achieve this for a very long time. However, they have not found a mechanism for applying it in practice because of misalignment in political interests.
The current Parliament of Sierra Leone has 146 members, with only 2 of that number being women. This represents about 13 percent (less actually) of the Quota. The country standsat182 out of 189 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Development Index 2020, with nearly half of the other bottom 20 countries being in West Africa.
There are laws which form part of series of legislation that reflects the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); paramount amongst which are the three Gender Acts, passed into Law in 2007. These Acts give immense powers to women in terms of security, property ownership and rites of passage. Now these are the areas where the discrimination and demoralization of women start. From cradle to grave, women are brainwashed to believe that they are not enough. Not enough for a man, not enough to preach, not enough to be educated, and definitely not enough to lead.
These Acts are also integral to combating sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), although the most significant law in respect to sexual violence is the Sexual Offences Act (SOA) of 2012. In any case, the suffering, abuse and marginalization of women continue. From domestic to rights and governance women have been left with no choice but to fight their way through and into everything, despite the many laws theoretically giving them powers and platforms to be seen and heard. Actualizing the 30 percent Quota remains a dream.
But I believe, in my heart of hearts, that women, with the right platform and support, are equal to the task and can perform as well as their male counterparts, if not better. I have a long list of those that have and are still defying the odds. We need more to take up the challenge. We need a “MOTHER” because only a mother can truly understand her child’s pain and need. A mother can do ANYTHING for her child, even if it means laying down her own life.
But I can only imagine, for now…