Africa, Africa: Women from P♂lls to P♀lls, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Women in Politics

POLITICS-SIERRA LEONE: Women Candidates Progress, But Not Enough

Mohamed Fofanah

FREETOWN, Aug 2 2008 (IPS) - Official results from the July 2008 local council elections in Sierra Leone have been announced by the chairperson of the country's National Electoral Commission. Despite numerous reports of harassment and intimidation, more women were elected to councils than in polls four years ago. But results fell short of the 30 percent representation set by gender activists.

Poster promoting female candidates for local council in Sierra Leone Credit:  Mohammed Fofanah/IPS

Poster promoting female candidates for local council in Sierra Leone Credit: Mohammed Fofanah/IPS

Out of 394 contested wards, women were elected to just 78 seats, which at 18.9 percent is an improvement on the 12.7 percent of local council seats won by women in 2004.

Honorine Muyoyeta, the Country Director for the National Democratic Institute, said, "Despite concrete steps to advance peace and democratic development in Sierra Leone, women – who constitute 49 percent of registered voters – are under-represented and continue to face significant challenges to full participation in politics."

But what will be the impact of continued low female representation in local government in a country that last year dropped to the bottom of the U.N.'s human development ranking? Economic growth has averaged over 7 percent for the past five years in the diamond-producing country of 5.7 million, but more than 70 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line and the country has high rates of illiteracy and the worst maternal and child mortality rates in the world.

Princess Pratt was a councillor for Kono District Council Ward 66 who ran again for the 2008 local Council elections under the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party's (SLPP) banner but was unsuccessful.

"Women in local governance is pivotal in our fledging democracy and development strides," Pratt said.

She said that she was one of three women on the local council in Kono and during her term in office, she catered for the needs of women in that district which had been ignored by previous governments.

"I built community markets for the women. I established rice mills for women farmers which improved their production of rice and subsequently their income. I constructed eight primary community schools in villages where there had never been schools. I gave scholarships to 70 girls and I even extended some of my projects to other wards were women's needs are desperate," Pratt told IPS

"Now there is only one woman in the council, I wonder how much she will be able to accomplish for women. But I know the men in the council will not be able to address the needs of women, because they do not relate to women's issues."

Richard Yarjah, a school teacher in Kono, whose wife was a beneficiary of the rice mill, is worried about its future, now that Pratt has lost office. "I wonder if the new councillors, dominated by men, will continue to support the mill, when the whole project has been grounded on women’s empowerment. My family has practically been managed from the proceeds my wife gets from her rice business."

Alie Kabbah, a trader at Kroo Bay, one of the slum communities in Freetown, said, "We only got a clinic for the first time in our community when we got a female councillor. If big politicians are threatening the women, refusing to give them symbol for them to stand for the elections, then things will not develop in this country.

There were numerous incidents of intimidation of female candidates during the election campaign. Fatmata Daramy had to pull out of the race in the Bombali District Council because she was afraid that her opponents would physically assault her. She said that the low female representation on local councils could be catastrophic for women.

"The northern region of the country where I wanted to stand for councilor really needs female representation because that part of the country has the highest rate of female illiteracy, so much so that the government had to institute affirmative action in giving scholarships to female students. How could we close the gaps in education if we are not there to push for these interests?"

The Director of Amnesty International in Sierra Leone, Brima Sheriff, stated that despite their support together with many other NGOs to women’s participation in the Local Council Elections the result is still frustrating.

He pointed out that "democracy is all about numbers and the fewer women in council means the less impact women will make to address their issues."

Brima however averred that unlike in Parliament where a majority is essential, women on local councils do not need approval from the whole council to develop projects and implement them.

"They could raise their voices even beyond their council, or influence the chairperson of their council to seek women’s welfare." he said.

Growing recognition of the impact women have on political institutions and agendas has prompted the International Foundation for Electoral Systems has initiated a project with the objective of building the Political Parties Registration Commission and the National Electoral Commission's incorporation of gender in their work, as well as to increase the electorate's understanding of women's involvement in local governance.

According to an official at the PPRC, the impact of this project will be realised in 2012 when there would be another Local Council election.

Margaret Vandy, another female candidate with the SLPP defeated in the council elections said "Women's empowerment is crucial to the development of Sierra Leone as a nation. Women are more than 50 percent of the population, so the status of women truly is the status of the people of Sierra Leone."

Republish | | Print |

luna coloring book