Sierra Leone: Gender Bill to Strengthen Women’s Political Participation
By Alusine Sesay
Women in Sierra Leone account for more than 52 percent of the country’s population yet 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.
Some of these challenges include lack of economic independence, high illiteracy and entrenched customs and traditions, and the lack of confidence to vie for public positions.
A 1995 report issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) concluded that 30 percent would be the minimum representation required for women as a group to exert a meaningful influence in legislative assemblies.
Even though the government has enacted many legislations and signed up many international treaties which guarantee the rights of women, little was done to ensure that women have substantial representation in governance.
Despite this, women remain significantly absent in decision-making and leadership positions in both public and private spheres.
There are many issues that accounted for this situation, but the actual situation that obtains leaves more to be desired.
European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) to sierra Leone said in its March 2018 Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council elections report, that women were clearly disadvantaged in the 2018 Presidential, and Parliamentary and Local Council elections.
According to the report, the proportion of women elected to Parliament has remained at a mere 12 percent. “There were no women on the ticket of the top four placed presidential candidates,” the report indicates.
The report shows that the number of female parliamentary candidates was 100 out of 795 (12.6 percent), while the total number of female Members of Parliament slightly increased to 18; taking into account the increase in the overall size of the parliament. “This election marked no progress in the percentage of female MPs at 12.3 percent.”
The report shows that there was a palpable lack of will among male politicians to address the reasons for low female nominations. “The reasons for this continuing low level of female representation are a combination of societal pressures, systemic barriers in the political and legal structure and reasons specific to this election,” report mentioned.
The report states that, there are some provisions in Sierra Leone’s laws and international commitments towards the equality of women, but de facto, women found it difficult to be accepted as candidates at all elected levels. “None of the major parties had a woman as a presidential candidate or running mate. There were two presidential candidates; however they only gained 0.5 percent and 0.2 percent in the first round,” the EU EOM said in its report.
The report indicates that “the specifics of the 2018 elections also had a negative effect on women’s chances of a level-playing field in seeking election.”
“The banning of dual citizens, (which though long-standing, had never been enforced before), had a disproportionate effect on female candidates because it was often those women with international backgrounds who were most likely to put themselves forward as MP candidates. The unreasonable restriction which bans anyone who has been a ‘public office holder’ in the 12 months prior to the election — which has been interpreted as including for instance teachers and university lecturers — also had the effect of discriminating disproportionally against women since they are professions in Sierra Leone in which women are more likely to gain the skills and experiences to enter politics. High and non-refundable nomination fees act as a deterrent to the economically disadvantaged, which includes most women,” the report indicates.
EU-EOM observers noted that women were disproportionately verbally, and in some cases, physically attacked during the campaign, often with reference being made to their gender. “Men, in nearly all parties, often had a patronising attitude towards women as a group stating ‘they are not ready’ and using the poor educational system that mostly male politicians have bequeathed to Sierra Leone as a justification for their prejudice, while ignoring that there are also a very small number of men who are able to meet the legally mandated educational, and socially expected, requirements to become MPs,” it said.
For Dr. Fatu Taqi, former president for 50/50 Group in Sierra Leone, women’s participation in election has decreased in Sierra Leone because the country is purely a male dominated society. Lesser chances, she said, are given to women despite the fact that women are in the majority. She attributed that to the negative aspects of culture which serve as a deterrent to women’s progress.
Dr. Taqui said that there is widespread stereotype that women cannot do anything other than housework, adding that the factors that are stopping women not to take active part in elections are time and family constraints, which involve looking after their family. She noted that there is also the fear that their partners won’t support them, “that is why they will stay back and support the men.”
According to Dr Taqui, literacy level is also another factor hindering women’s participation in politics, but as a group, she said the 50/50 has been going to different places across the country encouraging women to step forward and take part in elections. “We’ve been giving women the capacity building that is desperately needed for them to take up leadership in their communities and the nation as a whole,” she said. She added that their plan as an organization is to have many women go out and vote, and also ensure that women are voted for in the coming elections.
To address some of the challenges associated with women’s political participation, Cabinet Ministers on Wednesday July 21, 2021 approved the ‘Gender Empowerment Bill’ which seeks to reserve 30 percent seat for women in politics.
This came eight months after the President Julius Maada Bio launched the country’s first Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy 2020.
This development also took place 25 years after Sierra Leone adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; 21 years after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (Women, Peace, and Security); 11 years since the establishment of UN Women; and 6 years since the world set itself atargets in the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Minister of Gender and Children’s Affairs, Madam Manty Tarawalli said, “As a woman and line Minister, I am elated, excited and proud of His Excellency and my colleagues for supporting this landmark Bill.”
She said that the Bill will change the dynamics for women and increase opportunities across the country from local communities to districts and cities.
The Bill has four key provisions: 30% reserved seats for women in politics, 30% appointment positions for women, Access to finance and Gender mainstreaming and budgeting.
The Minister said that the Gender Empowerment Bill was a manifesto promise by President Julius Maada Bio.
Madam Tarawalli said the Bill will be gazetted immediately and put on the schedule for Parliament sitting after they resume from recess.
President Bio said that Gender Empowerment Bill will touch and transform the lives of women who make up 52% of our population.
“It will place them where they belong: at the centre of our nation’s development process with all due rights, access, opportunities, and resources. We are not about to witness history. Together, we are making history,” he said.
The Bill aimed at mainstreaming gender into all development and the political process in Sierra Leone and to ensure livelihood and social protection for women, boys and girls for sustainable peace and economic growth.
Note: This story was put together with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) human rights fellowship.