Sierra Leone: Only a New Government Can Bring Equality for Women

It was the great 19th century American social campaigner Lucretia Mott who stated: “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of women, the very foundations of life are poisoned at their source.” Since then, many nations and regions of the world have made great progress. Yet in Africa, the rights of women still need urgent attention, including in my own country Sierra Leone. And many women continue to be subjected to the same injustice and disenfranchisement Mott so abhorred 150 years ago.

As a vice-presidential candidate in Sierra Leone’s elections next year—the first woman ever included on a major party ticket in my country—I carry a great responsibility to revive the push for both female political representation and gender equality in my region of Africa. And across our continent there are promising advances. At 49 percent, Rwanda has the world’s highest ratio of women in parliament. Women in South Africa and Mozambique have held deputy presidential positions, while in Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has proved that women can reach the highest office.

Yet these exceptions stand alone in contrast to the situation across Africa as a whole where women remain politically sidelined. In Sierra Leone, warm words by our current President Koroma have remained just that, and his promise of 30 percent representation of women in public office by the end of his presidential term next year simply has not been enacted. President Koroma has displayed a brazen ambivalence towards existing female representatives with his less than generous cabinet appointments. The recommendation of Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights—which I was privileged to Chair—of the crucial need for political gender balance, it seems, is not a priority for the incumbent president.

My candidacy is fuelled by a desire to change this state-sanctioned apathy towards women’s rights and offer renewed hope to women in the country who have, despite a lack of representation, always been at the forefront of change. In 1996 when Sierra Leone was still under military rule, thousands of my sisters demonstrated despite the risk to their lives in support of restoring democracy. Today, just as then, women remain at the epicenter of any true democratization. And in this upcoming election, I intend to force the issue of female political representation to the forefront of the campaign.

However, there are significant hurdles to overcome—whether they are cultural stereotypes or engrained male-dominated hierarchies. These feed into a dangerous mix of apathy, tension and resentment towards women in Sierra Leone. Women in Africa must constantly challenge what the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance calls the ‘masculine model’ of politics that still prevails throughout the continent.

The need to engage with those who are under-represented extends beyond the cause of women’s rights. The civil war that ravaged my country for over a decade displaced three million, both internally and externally. Some 200,000 Sierra Leoneans now reside in the UK, most having fled during the civil war. As my Sierra Leone People’s Party pushes for further stability and democratization in the upcoming campaign, it is imperative that we re-engage with this Diaspora. They are crucial to the future of the country: the funds they send home to friends and family are the largest single source of income for many in Sierra Leone. Their professional expertise, including their experience of living and working in Britain where the rights of women and equality are further advanced, can provide their homeland with a wealth of opportunity. We must tap this reservoir of intellect to re-energize our workforce and bring much needed skills to our fragile economy.

However, I am under no illusion that such a re-engagement won’t be a challenge. Despite their love of their country, many in the Diaspora remain disaffected. This has not been helped by the politicization of the current government’s Diaspora office. Staffed entirely by members of President Koroma’s All-Peoples’ Congress party, it has become a largely partisan operation. And continuing accusations of high-level corruption in the Koroma administration has not helped. Only last month, an undercover report by Al-Jazeera implicated the Vice-President in the illegal sale of timber licenses. US Diplomatic cables made known to the world through Wikileaks have shone a light onto the favoritism and protection the President and his administration has given to those guilty of corruption and illegality. And, after five years in power, President Koroma’s Sierra Leone ties with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. So it is understandable that many in the Diaspora are uncertain whether to engage more substantially in investment and support for Sierra Leone under its current government, despite their love for their country.

But help is on the way. My party’s presidential candidate Julius Maada Bio was the head of state who handed the country back to multi-party elections in 1996, and for whose decision so many women of Sierra Leone campaigned in the streets to support in that dangerous year. Other leaders, not least the current president, have offered visionary words but few have the track record of Julius Maada Bio of acting on their pledges. If elected, together we will increase the number of women in the cabinet and high office across the country. We will enact in full the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And we will ensure that contracts and business dealings by the government are made transparently, allowing for members of the Diaspora to have the confidence they can invest in their country knowing it is a nation led by an administration committed to transparency, equality and fairness.

Sierra Leone is still scarred from a painful decade of civil conflict—our economic platform and democracy remain fragile and our people remain wary of those that promise so much and deliver very little. Lucretia Mott was correct when she said a nation’s progress can be measured by the status of its women. As a female African politician, now under an increasing spotlight as the election nears, I have a duty to reengage with those that have been left outside of the mainstream, whether through gender discrimination, social exclusion or conflict. Only by opening up civic institutions, government and business to all, and challenging the unwritten rules that exclude so many from political participation, can we ensure lasting change in Sierra Leone.

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Dr. Kadi Sesay is Vice-Presidential candidate of the Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party (SLPP) for the country’s 2012 Presidential Election. A university lecturer by profession, she was for six years the Chair of the Sierra Leone National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights. She also served as Minister of Development and Economic Planning and Trade and Industry in the SLPP Government until 2007.