War, women, and post-conflict empowerment: Sierra Leone’s experience

War, women and post-conflict empowerment book cover
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In 2023, elected female political representation in parliament more than doubled in Sierra Leone, moving from 11% to 30%, reflecting the largest number of elected women in the country’s history. More women Ministers and Deputy Ministers were also appointed and elected to Local Councils than ever before. This followed the passage of three key Acts in 2022 that established a quota for women in elected posts: the Public Elections Act, the Political Parties Regulation Commission Act, and the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) Act.

Some heralded the law as transformative, covering all the issues that women had long been advocating for, and felt it cemented the President’s legacy as an advocate for women’s rights. For others, it did not go far enough, and represented a compromise palatable enough to be passed in a male-dominated parliament concerned about the loss of seats to women. These developments reflect well the paradox that we capture in our book on women and socioeconomic development after the decade-long civil war about the ambiguity around definitions of success and the women’s movement in Sierra Leone.

While post-conflict environments are often heralded as a space for transformation, particularly when it comes to women’s rights, including passing quota laws for women’s political participation, Sierra Leone did not seem to fit this model of success, only managing to pass a quota law more than twenty years after the conflict, despite years of advocacy by women’s groups.

In our book, War Women and Post-conflict Empowerment, we highlight that while Sierra Leone might not fit conventional standards of success, significant gains have been made in other areas to advance women’s rights and gender justice, such as the three Gender Acts, and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act of 2019 (alongside the most recent quota legislation). As such, women are making incremental changes. We found ourselves asking nonetheless, what these incremental steps meant for women’s empowerment.  Does the passage of such legislation necessarily check all the ‘transformative’ boxes? How can these successes be mobilized into tangible changes for women’s empowerment?

New insights on war, women, conflict and empowerment

Our book critically examines these questions by offering insightful analysis and recommendations from a variety of theoretical frameworks, research, and activist perspectives that problematize the concepts of “success” and “empowerment” and decolonize both in theory and practice. Contributing authors include both scholars and activists from across the global South and the North, span multiple disciplines, and use a variety of theories to advance the argument for a context-based approach that emphasizes the importance of storytelling, centering of women’s voices, and is cognizant of localized understandings of empowerment, development, and indigenous frames of knowledge.

Case studies provide nuanced insights showing that despite enduring challenges women activists have faced over time from patriarchal and patronage systems, legacies of colonialism, a fragmented women’s movement, and over-reliance on Eurocentric neoliberal frameworks, they have exercised resilience, flexibility, and adaptability in their efforts to advance sustainable and gender-equitable change.

We cover issues ranging from women in politics, education, the health sector, constitutional and legal reforms, the role of UN agencies, and women’s mobilizing through social media for a gender-inclusive UN Resolution on the Ebola crisis. These case studies show that in Sierra Leone as elsewhere, women are not a homogenous group and there is no one way of “doing” activism given the complexities and contradictions that stem from their situated contexts such as internal and global initiatives and processes which impact outcomes.

Four complementary lenses

The book is organized into four sections, each of which brings a different perspective to these issues.

Part (1), Conceptual Frameworks, presents a fluidity of approaches to explain historical, theoretical, and contextual foundations of women’s lived experiences, responses, and recommended directions to chart new and tangible interventions and practices. For example, Hollist destabilizes conventional notions of women’s empowerment and neoliberal approaches to national development which often rely on measurable results. He emphasizes the need to incorporate storytelling as a pivotal tool for consciousness raising and attitudinal change in the continuum of women’s empowerment and national development interventions.

Part (2) focuses on Women and Politics arguing in favor of going beyond the numbers to examine more closely tangible changes resulting from women’s advocacy and activism. While Denzer provides a biographical study of Zainab Bangura’s early career in politics and governance, particularly her role in women’s and civil society organizations, Abdullah examines the issue of election related violence against “political women” in Sierra Leone politics. Day’s chapter on women in indigenous political leadership argues that women chiefs have a role to play in shaping the agenda for women’s empowerment.

Part (3) examines the legal, social, and economic complexities of women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone from more context-oriented and localized understandings of empowerment and development. Dumbuya explains the root causes of women’s inequality as grounded in customary laws and traditional practices that are embedded in the constitution and laws of Sierra Leone and which require legislative changes for meaningful transformations to take place. Shepler and Graybill focusing on education and gender-based violence, respectively, demonstrate how initiatives based on conventional understandings and measures of success have failed to produce expected outcomes of women’s empowerment. McGough similarly discusses the contradictory results that emanated from international laws and mandates when translated into local contexts, such as the Free Healthcare Initiative which bypassed traditional birth attendants who had historically provided affordable healthcare services to women, thereby depriving them of their means of livelihood and rural recipients of their services. She advocates for policies and training programs that are non-formal, culturally embedded, and complementary to formalized state healthcare initiatives.

Part (4) explores the impact and contradictions of advocacy and activist efforts of internal and external actors. For example, the UNHCR’S gender policy for refugees and returnees post-war (Skran); efforts of Sierra Leone women activists in the diaspora and locally to raise awareness around gender inequalities during the Ebola crisis (Smythe); the politics of women’s activism within Sierra Leone to push for gender justice laws around the Safe Abortion Bill and Constitutional Review process (Fofana Ibrahim) and Amendment of the Sexual Offences Act (M’Cormack-Hale). Fofana-Ibrahim addresses the issue of fragmentation within the women’s movement and argues that women mobilize and negotiate their activism differently depending on the issue under consideration. In a conservative society like Sierra Leone, women are more likely to prioritize their religious identity over gender activism on issues like abortion. She suggests that opposing groups can build solidarity by mobilizing around their commonalities as opposed to taking an “us” versus “them” approach. M’Cormack-Hale’s analysis of women’s activism around the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, concludes that women’s ability to influence policy reform that guarantees their security must stem from women working collectively to establish partnerships with actors across multiple and varying agendas, and employing different types of negotiations and compromises where necessary.

The research agenda – and activism – to come

While the passage of new legislation is warmly welcomed, there is still much work to be done. Women continue the work of advocacy and activism to strengthen the laws and expand understandings of success and women’s empowerment in localized contexts, something seen in various contributions in the book.

Dr. Fredline M’Cormack-Hale (@fredlinemh) is a professor at the School of Diplomacy and
International Relations, Seton Hall University, who works on gender, development, and
democratization in post-war states, with a focus on Sierra Leone.

Dr. Josephine Beoku-Betts is a professor emerita of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality
Studies and Sociology at Florida Atlantic University, whose research focuses on women’s
political activism in Sierra Leone since the 1990s and African women in scientific careers.

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