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SIERRA LEONE: Caught Between Leaving the Kitchen and Putting Food on the Table

Nadja Drost

FREETOWN, Jul 17 2007 (IPS) - When Iyesha Josiah told people last year that after the August 2007 general elections, she would stand before them as a new member of parliament for Sierra Leone, they thought she was joking.

The hardships of daily life in Sierra Leone often make political aspirations a luxury. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

The hardships of daily life in Sierra Leone often make political aspirations a luxury. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

A woman trying to step onto the political stage can generate surprise verging on condemnation in this West African country, even a woman as qualified as Josiah – an experienced women&#39s rights and literacy campaigner.

"I had the confidence to venture into this very rare area (for a woman) that is political participation, which has been referred to as men&#39s business," said Josiah, exuding a calm determination.

Her bid for office was short-lived: she did not succeed in getting party support for her candidacy, allegedly because of fraud in the primaries. However, Josiah&#39s experience has highlighted the challenges that would-be female parliamentarians face ahead of the Aug. 11 ballot.

The presidential and legislative poll will be just the second in Sierra Leone since the end of a brutal, 11-year civil war in 2002 – and the first since the 2005 withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers who helped ensure that the country remained secure for the last general election, in 2002.

Not least amongst the obstacles confronting women are difficulties created by the return to a constituency-based electoral system earlier this year.

For the 2002 elections and a previous poll in 1996, Sierra Leone used a system of proportional representation which allocates seats to parties according to the share of the vote that they win. Political groupings, in turn, allocate seats to candidates who figure on party lists.

Proportional representation is widely held to be more effective in enabling women to win office: it is considered easier to get parties to take an enlightened view of women&#39s participation in politics – and nominate female candidate to their lists – than to fight discrimination against women at the level of individual constituencies. In the 2002 polls, the number of seats in female hands tripled, and women now hold 14 percent of parliamentary posts.

The reintroduction of the constituency system has thus raised fears that it will be harder for women to win seats in next month&#39s vote, says Nemata Eshun-Baiden, co-founder of the 50/50 Group – a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that aims to increase women&#39s political participation.

In addition, deeply-rooted beliefs that confine women to domestic roles continue to prevent them from participating more actively in politics.

"Sierra Leone is still grappling with how you have women in decision-making positions," notes Valnora Edwin, co-ordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance – an NGO. "In the south…traditional leaders stated they would not allow women to participate in any politics…because they said the women don&#39t respect the men."

While there are now three female cabinet ministers, and a woman at the head of the National Electoral Commission, none of Sierra Leone&#39s three main political parties has selected a woman as its presidential candidate.

Laws and policies entrench traditional beliefs: under customary law, which governs most of the country, a woman is considered her husband&#39s possession.

"The tradition here is patriarchy and therefore all of the decisions, all of the policies, have been done by men," said Josiah. "Asking the men to revisit those policies and the decisions from some time ago has not been easy."

Nonetheless, women&#39s groups are pushing for 30 percent of seats in parliament to be reserved for women, reflecting the widely-held view that female legislators need to control a third of seats to exercise influence in parliament.

Health Minister Abator Thomas is hopeful that legislation to introduce this quota will ultimately be passed. "Women and men have been sensitised that women are not just for the kitchen…As we say, we should be in parliament as well," she says.

But while it&#39s true that women are not "just for the kitchen", many are necessarily more concerned with what they are serving for dinner than serving in parliament – pervasive poverty being as effective a deterrent of political hopes as tradition.

Sarah Mansaray has been selling her goods at the Congo Town market in the capital, Freetown, for 13 years. Worrying daily about how to put food on the table, Mansaray&#39s only concern about the upcoming election is that it should bring her some relief: "If the cost of living goes down, if our children go to school, and if hospital fees come down, I will be grateful," she says.

According to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report, about three-quarters of people in Sierra Leone live on less than two dollars a day. Widowed by the war, many women struggle to support children on their own.

At a recent workshop held by the Mano River Women&#39s Peace Network and the Sierra Leone Armed Forces Wives Co-operative Society, the agenda included discussing the importance of women&#39s participation in the election; but delegates soon started echoing the observations made by Mansaray, in Congo Town.

"We want water! We want lights! We want salary increases!" urged Sarah Conteh, one of the military wives, her voice rising in frustration. Conteh&#39s peers in the bustling military hall where the workshop was held chimed in with a chorus of agreement.

Poverty also conspires with tradition to deny women the education that is key to contesting polls.

Josiah says the law stipulates a certain level of schooling on the part of candidates. But, only one in every four women in Sierra Leone can read, according to the 2006 United Nations Human Development Report. "So you see that if the bulk of the women are illiterate, it is a small percentage that even qualifies for what we are talking about," added Josiah.

Notes Edwin: "Look at the capacity of…women. How many have attended higher education that would enable them to occupy those (parliamentary) seats? Very few."

In addition, a lack of finances could prove a hurdle under the return to constituency politics, as some claim that candidates will inevitably be forced to dip into their own pockets to gain victory in their constituencies – an expense that didn&#39t arise when seats were allocated according to party lists.

"You need a lot of money to win this election, and the women don&#39t have money," says Eshun-Baiden, who fears the higher costs will discourage women from even running. To date, 64 women are in the parliamentary race; the total number of candidates is reportedly 572.

Still, Josiah believes that the people best suited to making changes to benefit women are women themselves.

Her next step? "I&#39m about to train women political aspirants."

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