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SIERRA LEONE: Activists Angered By Poor Results for Women

Lansana Fofanah

FREETOWN, Jul 17 2008 (IPS) - Sierra Leone’s women’s advocacy group "50/50" has expressed disappointment at the poor showing of women in the July 5 local council elections.

Advocates are calling for a return to a proportional representation system which guarantees places for women in party lists. Credit:  Tugela Ridley/IRIN

Advocates are calling for a return to a proportional representation system which guarantees places for women in party lists. Credit: Tugela Ridley/IRIN

"We expected more women to contest for mayorship in the municipalities and ward councillors across the country but this did not happen," says Harriet Turay, the group’s president. "We will not relent in our campaign to get more female representation in decision-making positions in the country and we have already started working ahead of the 2012 general elections."

Final results will only be announced on July 27, but it is becoming clear that women are likely to clinch less than 20 percent of all contested seats for the municipalities across the country. The 50/50 group has been campaigning for a 30 percent ratio in governance, both at state and municipal levels.

Rights monitoring groups claim one reason so few seats were won by women was harassment and intimidation of female candidates before and during the polls by agents of the the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Across the country, a number of female candidates were refused the right to represent the parties they belonged to, thus forcing them to contest as independent candidates.

This deprived these women of campaign funds and other party backing, and their efforts were further hampered by threats and physical attacks which forced at least 30 female candidates to back out of the race. The incidents were documented by the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations whose head Charles Mambu says this is a setback for the country’s fledging democracy.

"We recorded several of these cases both in the run up to the elections as well as during polling time," Mambu laments. "Militants especially those belonging to the ruling APC were mainly behind these acts and we informed the appropriate authorities to take action. It is indeed a dent on our democratic gains."

There are reports that traditional leaders and local authorities in some provincial districts coerced female candidates to step aside. Juliet Conteh, an aspirant in the northern district of Koinadugu told IPS she was forced by the paramount chief in the area to step down for the candidate of the ruling party. "When I refused, I was harassed until I decided to contest as an independent candidate. Even then, the chief warned that I hands-off the whole elections thing which I did reluctantly."

Another candidate for councillorship in the Port Loko district, also in the north, Fatmata Daramy said she was intimidated by the member of parliament in the area not to contest against the ruling party candidate.

According to Harriett Turay, there is need to revert to the former proportional representation system of electioneering which made it mandatory for parties to field a certain quota of women as part of their list of candidates for election.

"The proportional representation system is woman-friendly as opposed to the first past the post. This is the only way we can be sure of having up to 30 percent female representation in decision-making," she opines. In the current parliament, which was elected a year ago, there are 17 female MPs as opposed to their male counterparts who total 103 . It is even worse for the cabinet which has less than 10 percent women ministers.

Results under the old system bear her out, as the 1996 and 2002 general elections both returned greater numbers of women to parliament.

The Sierra Leonean president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has said repeatedly that his government believes in empowering women especially in governance but has so far not met the expectations of women’s advocacy groups. But the incidents of attacks, harassment and intimidation of female candidates are viewed by advocacy groups like the Campaign for Good Governance, Centre for Coordination of Youth Activities and the National Elections Watch as a major setback to the government’s pronouncement of pursuing a gender equality agenda.

"We expect more from the government in terms of giving out positions to women because we believe there are very competent women out there who can perform just as men do; it is not just about pronouncements, I think our women are ready to serve their country," concludes Harriett Turay.

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