By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
In Sierra Leone women and youth make up more than 70 percent of the population and are the main labour force in the economy, yet they are the most impoverished and least represented in the governance of the country. Of the 132 Members of Parliament elected in the 2018 General Elections, only 16 (12 percent) are women. In 2018 only 2 out of the 14 appointed traditional leaders in Parliament are women.
Women’s participation in governance at community, district and national levels is limited to handful of positions. Moreover, a decade after the passage of the Four Gender Acts, which were intended to free women and girls from the bondage of traditional beliefs and practices, Female Genital Mutilation continues unabated.
Existing international laws and policies advocate for gender equity in decision-making and political participation, as outlined in documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. More recently, the UN General Assembly in a Joint Declaration on “Advancing Women’s Political Participation” declared, “women’s political participation is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace”. However, Sierra Leone is a long way from achieving the standards laid out in international codes, with structural discrimination against women entrenched across all levels and institutions of society. This inhibits the participation of women in public life and decision-making at all levels.
The EU Observation Report findings (pages 28-29) indicate that women were clearly disadvantaged in these elections. None of the major parties had a woman as a presidential candidate or running mate. There were two female presidential candidates, however they only gained 0.5% and 0.2% in the first round. There were four female running mates in a field of 16. The number of female parliamentary candidates was 100 out of 795 (12.6%). While the total number of female MPs 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%. Sierra Leone is ranked 144 out of 192 in the world for the lowest percentages of elected female politicians. There were 73 women elected out of the 489 local councilors (15%). There was a palpable lack of will among male politicians to address the reasons for low female nominations.
It is against this background that the ‘More than a Woman’ project was launched in the Eastern Region of Sierra Leone, where women empowerment seems to be gaining some grounds. The project, which is funded by Irish Aid and implemented by SEND Sierra Leone, seeks to strengthen women’s participation in politics and governance.
According to the Country Director of SEND Sierra Leone, Joseph Ayamga, the project would ensure women speak with collective voice, knowledge, capacity on gender and accountability in governance and politics at district and regional levels, empower women economically through resource mobilization and utilization, and hold annual Eastern Regional Women in Governance meetings for women to learn and share experiences.
Speaking at the launching ceremony in April 2019, the Eastern Region Social Welfare representative noted that the region is on the verge of making a remarkable progress if they continued with the trend, citing the Beijing declaration and other Conventions that speak against all forms of discrimination against women by the United Nations standards.
The Deputy Chairman Kono District Council, Tamba John Trye, assured that the perennial issue of traditional beliefs, which has been a hindrance to women’s participation in governance, was waning as more women are now coming up for elective and other high positions in that part of the country.
“The only obstacle we have now is women contesting for the Paramount Chieftaincy title,” he mentioned, and called on SEND Sierra Leone and its partners to sensitize and educate traditional leaders to see the need to allow women their right to contest for the Paramount Chief title in the district.
PC Emmanuel Ganawa, who represented Paramount Chiefs at the event, said Kailahun district had always been promoting women through the help of SEND SL. He recalled how women have been participating in Paramount Chieftaincy elections in Kailahun for many years.
However, PC Ganawa said it is unfortunate that women have not been supporting their colleagues when they aspire for elective positions, including the chieftaincy.
According to the Governance Advisor-Irish Aid, Josephus Ellie, Ireland and Sierra Leone are partners in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly Goal 15 and 5.5 of the SDGs, which aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.
“It also provides access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions and ensure that women make full and effective participation in equal opportunities in leadership and all levels in decision making and public life respectively,” said Josephus, adding that the statistics on participation in governance are very worrisome and women participation in governance remains very low in Sierra Leone.
He revealed that the embassy of Ireland has concluded its mission strategic plan for the next five years with four pillars: gender, nutrition and food security, security and education.
“Empowering citizens, particularly women, to engage with inclusive and accountable democratic institutional processes is key to the governance and human rights priorities of the Government of Ireland’s engagements over the next five years,” said Josephus.
He described their engagement with SEND Sierra Leone, which started in 2017 ahead of the elections, as cordial and professional and producing positive results, which are very visible today.
Also speaking at the launching, SEND Sierra Leone Board Chair Madam Kadie Jumu called on SEND and the women in Kono, Kailahun and Kenema to be the pacesetters by showing the other women what they are capable of doing. She expressed thanks and appreciation to Irish Aid for the support provided for the project launch.
Furthermore, Kadie called on development partners to help them scale up the project to other regions across the country within the next couple of years for them to have more women representation in elective and governance positions.
One of the main recommendations during the launch is the need for a mechanism, be it legislative or otherwise, to increase women in governance; particularly in Parliament and Local Councils.