As Sierra Leoneans prepare to go to the polls in November 2012, there has been no real progress toward gender equality in political participation; none of the political parties, including the two main parties, has promoted women’s issues at any significant level as a means of pursuing women’s endorsement in their campaigns. Strangely however, masses of women have been forceful campaigners and in the forefront of canvassing for all parties.
Women make up more than half the population of Sierra Leone yet they are marginally engaged in the political process and their representations in the current political leadership landscape amount to only 18.9% at the local level and 13% at the national level. By all accounts, these figures will not be changing by much and may even be curtailed after the November 2012 general elections given the current political structure.
There is systemic marginalization of women in the practices of all political parties in Salone. One interesting practice in all parties is the relegation of women to what is called “the women’s wing” of each party. Each women’s wing is headed by a “chair woman” and a few other women are given other leadership roles within the “wing.” The authorities of these “women leaders” are limited to the “wing” and have no bearing on the overall party. The “women’s wings” essentially serve as logistics committees: they garner the services of women, who serve as event planners, caterers and perform other domestic duties for the parties. They are also instrumental in engaging the masses of women in canvassing activities. Meanwhile, the male members of the parties handle the important decision-making roles in the “main halls” of the political arena; including decisions that impact women’s rights and even decisions about how the “women’s wings” are structured and governed.
No change in patriarchal political culture
Particularly at stake this 2012 Election has been the decade long fight by women of Sierra Leone to have a 30% quota in political leadership. The 2007-2012 Parliamentary session closed in September without the passage of a bill that would have put this quota in effect for the 2012 elections; which would have inched this patriarchal political arena of Sierra Leone toward gender equality.
This comes as no surprise given that of the 124 members of the outgoing parliament, only 16 were women; a very hostile environment indeed for women members who wished to push women’s rights issues. Consequently, the gender equality bill was only paid lip service by the powers that be; the dominant male actors had no real political will to push it. In the end, women were duped as this is going to have serious repercussions on the furtherance of gender equality in political leadership now and in the future – unless women take serious actions.
Women must use political power for change
Critics of the quota system argue that it does not help women in the long run, that women should be given equal opportunities to compete and gain access to political power. However, in a country where there is obviously no political will for equal opportunity among the male dominated political leadership, the only way this structure can start to change is through the legal system. Yes, equal opportunities for women is the ideal, but the male actors are so heavily engrossed in holding on to power that only a legal instrument such as a quota law or constitutional amendment will influence or initiate change.
In this November 2012 elections, men and women of Sierra Leone will vote to elect a president who will serve a 5-year term. They will also elect members of parliament who will make up the legislative body for the next 5 years. If things remain as they are, these will be five more years of regression in women’s rights issues, women’s pursuit of political participation, and five more years of women navigating an imbalanced political playing field. Are women going to just let things remain as they are?
The women who worked on the bill for the 30% quota worked hard, even though their hard work was thwarted at the end. But their hard work would not go in vein, if they continue their efforts in various other ways to empower their lot so that change will be effected eventually. Whether through a legal instrument such as a quota or through activism, they must now stop endorsing the delusions of those who believe they can continue sidelining women in the political process. Women must stop allowing their own disenfranchisement by:
- Doing away with the “women’s wing” and stop performing domestic duties for the political parties
- Demanding to take their place at the round table in the “main halls” of the political arena
- Lobbying male politicians and boycotting those who do not support their cause
- Halting the election by asking all women to stay home on election day, unless the 30% quota bill is ratified
- Demanding gender equality in the political leadership structure through legislation
This list could go on, as the possibilities for women to use their political power as a significant citizenry are numerous. The situation, therefore, is not hopeless; women’s contribution in the political process is critical and cannot be ignored without consequences. Women have the power to put up a serious fight against the patriarchal model of politics in Sierra Leone and must utilize this power. It is obvious that the status quo will remain only if women continue to allow it. They must reject being sidelined and assert their citizenship rights by demanding gender equality in political leadership.