Women organising for gender equality in Sierra Leonean politics

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LogoContinuing our series on gender and politics, Dr Hussainatu Abdullah reviews the progress of women fighting for gender equality in Sierra Leone since the end of the war. Hussainatu is a sociologist and an independent scholar with extensive research and consultancy experience in West Africa.



The issue of gender equality in Sierra Leonean politics became part of the country’s political discourse in the mid 1990s during the struggle for democratisation as part of the wider struggle to end the civil upheaval. When the military junta that was ruling the country was trying to stall the democratic process by advocating peace before democratisation, the women’s movement was given the mantle of leadership by other civil society organisations to mobilise public opinion on the issue. It was during this process that the women’s movement under the aegis of the Women’s Forum demanded, among others things, equal representation of both women and men at the peace talks. Unfortunately, the women’s demand for equal representation was ignored by both the rebel movement and the military government. While part of the movement disintegrated due to internal differences, another section tried to forge ahead and define a role for women within the new democratic framework that emerged after the 1996 elections. However, the May 1997 coup d’état put an end to the political space being utilised by this emerging, independent, voice of women.

Women’s Post-War Political Activism

Women’s post-war[1] political activism for gender equality in Sierra Leone, can be categorised into three phases – 2000 to 2008; 2010-2012; and the current phase, 2013 and beyond. The first was phase was heralded by the emergence of the 50/50 Group in 2000. The Group’s bold step of demanding equal access to political representation and the participation of women in Sierra Leonean politics, which is highly patriarchal and male-dominated, emboldened a sizeable number of women to step forward and contest the first post-war parliamentary election in 2002 and first local election after 32 years in 2004. The 50/50 Group, in cooperation with other women’s groups, such as the Women’s Forum, and the National Organisation of Women (NOW), drafted the Sierra Leone Women’s Manifesto to lobby and advocate for at least 30% of all elective and appointive positions in politics and the public sector to be held by women. While the coalition was unsuccessful in getting an electoral gender quota at both the national and local levels, the government was forced to institute a quota for the appointment of Local Government Commissioners and the Ward Committees at the local level. The introduction of proportional representation instead of the traditional first-past-the-post ballot system, gave the Group and its allies the opportunity to lobby political parties to use the zipper system (alternating women and men on party lists) and put women higher on the party list. The lobbying of political parties went hand in hand with advocacy to sensitise the populace on the need for women’s participation in politics and training of women aspirants and contestants to effectively engage in the political process. The coalition’s efforts galvanised women to contest both elections. At the parliamentary level, the number of female contestants and elected representatives rose from 65 and 5 (6.2%)[2] respectively in 1996 to 156 and 18 (14.5%) in 2002. At the local government level, 54 (13.7%) women won their councillorship elections, 5.3% were elected as Mayors/Chairpersons and 10.5% as Deputies.

The political landscape in 2007 and 2008 created both opportunities and challenges for women activists in their struggle for a gender quota. In the case of the latter, the activists used the ongoing Constitution Review process to once again demand an electoral quota arguing that it was one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations to engender politics in post-war Sierra Leone. The Constitution Review Committee (CRC) rejected the women’s demand because it felt it was elitist and reflected the views of educated women in Freetown, the capital city. On the other hand, the proportional representation system that favoured women’s candidacy was discarded for the first-past-the-post ballot system.

The All People’s Congress (APC), the main opposition party, that was responsible for the country’s political decline into totalitarianism and violence in the 1970s and 1980s, was in a strong position to challenge the then ruling party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) for power. Women’s demand for a gender-sensitive nomination process was ignored by both political parties. Given that both the SLPP and APC were determined to win the elections at all cost, political violence – a main characteristic of pre-war politics that was almost non-existent in 1996 and 2002 – resurfaced in the 2007 and 2008 electoral processes. Given the ensuing scenario of violence and intimidation of women as voters and candidates, the women’s movement was forced to change course and focus on ensuring the safety and security of women. It also had to mobilise resources to assist female candidates who were willing to contest as independents after being discriminated against in their party’s nomination process. They provided both financial and technical assistance to enable women  participate in the political process. While women’s representation and participation rate in the parliamentary election dropped to 64 and 16 (13.5%) respectively, their engagement at the local level increased by over 100% but only 18.9% were elected – below the 30% minimum that women had been campaigning for.

The second phase of women’s activism for a 30% gender quota bill, was spurred by President Koroma’s pledge to adhere to women’s demand for a gender quota at all levels of decision-making during the 2012 electioneering period. This pledge, which was first made during the International Women’s Day celebration in 2010, was reiterated again at the same occasion in 2011. The President urged women to take ownership of the process by ensuring that the bill is a Private Member rather than a government–sponsored initiative. The women’s movement took up the challenge and worked tirelessly drafting the bill and raising funds from development partners for gazetting and organising a national validation workshop. In the same vein, the United Nations Family in Sierra Leone, under the auspices of the United Nations Integrated Mission in Sierra Leone, provided funding to the Political Party Registration Commission to establish the All Political Party Women’s Association (APPWA)[3]. The APPWA’s role is to build a cross-party national alliance of female political operatives to ensure that political parties accept the electoral gender quota issue. Toward this end, all the four major political parties[4] (with the exception of the SLPP) that had a Gender Policy adopted a policy which political party women were to use to negotiate with their male-dominated party executives to implement a gender quota in the nomination of candidates for 2012 elections.

Regrettably, the efforts of both the women’s movement and the international community came to naught as the draft Gender Equality Bill was not adopted before the close of the 2007-2012 parliamentary session. Male parliamentarians’ lack of support for the adoption of the bill was understandable as it might have led to some of them losing their seats as new constituencies were not being created. However, what was worrying was the lack of support from the majority of female parliamentarians for the women’s movement in the drafting and lobbying for the enactment of the bill. This lack of cooperation was also experienced among APPWA’s political party executives on one hand, and among female political party executives and the elected members on the other hand. The deeply entrenched political party loyalty and power struggle by female political operatives took precedence over their collective gender interest.

However, the women’s movement is optimistic that the Gender Equality bill will be enacted during the country’s third post-war parliamentary cycle 2012-2017, because the government has stated that it is part of its legislative agenda[5]. Toward this end, the government has established the office of the Special Adviser on Gender in the presidential office to work with women’s groups, parliamentarians and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) on all gender equality and women’s empowerment issues in the country. The Gender Equality bill is now a government-sponsored bill and the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs[6] has hinged his success on the passage of the bill. Furthermore, the current Chairman of the CRC is in support of a gender-sensitive Constitution and is encouraging women to speak with one voice on all gender equality issues. Also, the working relationship among the different foci of female political operatives has improved considerably as the ruling party, the APC, which was the stumbling block is now heading both the APPWA and the parliamentary female caucus. However, the thorny issue of bringing on board male politicians, who constitute 87.6% of members of parliament is still outstanding.

The struggle for gender equality in Sierra Leone’s political landscape, which started with the bold move by the 50/50 Group advocating for equal representation and participation of both sexes in politics, has now been adopted as a state project. While working with the state to move gender equality forward, the women’s movement should also strive to maintain an independent voice and resist co-option by the state and its allies.

[1] The Lome Agreement that ended the war was signed in 1999, but the war was declared over in 2002.

[2] Contested seats in 1996 were 80 and in 2002 and there were 124.

[3] The coalition included female executives in political parties, parliamentarians and councillors.

[4] APC, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change and the National Democratic Movement

[5] The government now has a two-third majority in parliament

[6] The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has established the M30  task force involving women’s NGOs, APPWA members and female parliamentarians to ensure the enactment of the bill.


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