Political leadership is one of the most sought aspirations for Sierra Leonean women and men; as we are acutely aware that socioeconomic and political prosperity come to those who are in this arena in our country, they have tremendous power and influence in all sectors of our society. So it is a real tragedy for the segments of the population that find themselves cut off from this vital domain, whether due to gender, tribal or other factors.
A tragic reality for women
Evidence of the tragedy of women’s under representation in political leadership in Sierra Leone is all around us, in women’s every day lives and existence. We continue to face discrimination in educational institutions, given the low percentage of girls in secondary school, higher education and high level employment; neglected in healthcare delivery as shown by the high rate of maternal mortality and other health issues; ignored in political decisions and many other areas that are crucial not only for our own wellbeing and development but for the progress of our country. The United Nation’s Human Development Index ranks Sierra Leone at 180 out of 187; a glaring hint, among other things, that our country is under-utilizing a large proportion of its human resources, WOMEN.
It has been over 50 years since Sierra Leone became a politically independent nation, since then, our status in society as women have been regressing in all social spheres, especially in political leadership. For Sierra Leone to prosper domestically and to compete on the global stage, her leaders must put an end to this retrogressive trend of gender inequality. If things are going to change for the better in Sierra Leone, women’s participation in the political process has to be more than just the opportunity to vote in “free and fair elections;” real progressive change will only happen through our participation in the full spectrum of the political process backed by equal socioeconomic and political leadership opportunities. Progressive-minded leaders must consider this seriously but most importantly, we as women must act in ways that would lead our society in a positive direction to achieve progressive transformation for the next generations.
President Ernest Bai Koroma recently re-shuffled and put his 2013 cabinet in place. From our vantage point, so far, this is nothing to write home about as far as women are concerned in his appointments. His appointment of the two women to cabinet ministerial positions fall within the characteristics of most of his other appointment of the male cabinet members – they are based on political loyalty and campaign promise fulfillment.
We do not see this rather pathetic number of women in his new cabinet as any indication that he intends to promote progress for women in his administration. There is no evidence to indicate that these women were appointed because of their advocacy for women’s progress; as with all the other women before them, their ascension to these positions amount to advancement only for the individual women not for womenfolk in Sierra Leone.
Change begins with US
As women of Salone, we have the potential to be the most potent change agents for womankind in our Beloved home. However, to be true change agents, we have to be conscious of the opportunities that we are fortunate to have and use those opportunities for the benefit of our kind, not just for personal gain and advancement. We make up over 50% of the population; a fair number of us are in high-level positions in government and business; a great number of us live abroad in Western countries. But none of these prospects matter because we are not a cohesive group, which renders us ineffective even when some of us try to engage in political activism.
There is plenty of blame to be tossed at other actors for our marginalization, including the legacy of colonialism, patriarchy and past and present chauvinistic male leaders who have done nothing to bring us into the fold in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, to blame these actors without some introspection for our contributions in the unprogressive state of our kind in society will be disingenuous.
We must, therefore, take the time now to re-group and, as we say in Salone, “hang-head” and engage in some self-examination if we are to make any changes by the next election in 2017. To this end, we must start by acknowledging, and if possible, erasing at least a few of the superficial lines that divide us, thereby preventing us from becoming a cohesive force in Sierra Leone. Meaningful change will only happen when we as women come together with a unified vigor to say ENOUGH with one word to our leaders.
Freetown vs. Upline Divide
The effort of women’s groups who were working on the Gender Equality Quota Bill for the 2012 election year was much lauded in the press. When it failed, these groups were said to blame the women Parliamentarians for not pushing it; there were only 16 of them in a Parliament of 124. What could they have done?
As hard as these women’s groups worked on this campaign, there are no indications that the campaign efforts involved women beyond Freetown proper. With the myriad women’s groups in Sierra Leone today purporting to advocate for women, the vast majority, if not all of them are in Freetown, precisely because the women who form these groups, the government as well as donor agencies of financial relevance to these groups are all residing in Freetown. In fact, the average woman even in Freetown knows nothing about the activities of these women’s groups; they have become exclusive entities for the Freetown elite.
The resulting tragedy of this practice is that when a critical mass is needed to create a movement for change, all these groups put together are not effective, not without the 70% of women left out because they live in “Upline” (rural) regions of Sierra Leone.
It would do us all a lot more good if women’s organizations in Freetown would venture beyond Waterloo, be true to the causes we claim to advocate by engaging women in all corners of Sierra Leone in our efforts. It should be required of each group to have activities involving Upline regions, where women suffer the crux of the adverse issues we face. Otherwise, these women’s groups are only throwing darts in the dark; not in tune with the realities of the issues women are facing in totality nor will they ever be able to make changes for womankind in Salone.
Literacy vs. Illiteracy Divide
With the high rate of illiteracy among women in Sierra Leone, those of us who are “Western” literate tend to forget that the majority of our kind are not so fortunate; when we speak for ALL without involving them, we are doing all of us a disservice. What we fail to realize when we do this is the fact that we are excluding a vast majority of our own who may not be western literate but are intelligent and can be very efficient in our collective efforts. Western literacy is indeed a great tool for survival in the world today but it does not measure intelligence or efficacy; we have in our history illiterate women who ruled as Queens, Paramount Chiefs, etc. Today’s illiterate women have life skills and lived experiences that cannot be learned in any classroom and these are invaluable assets for efforts to bring progressive transformation; excluding them amounts to an unfortunate tragedy for women’s causes in Sierra Leone.
Diaspora vs. Back home Divide
This should not even be a line; but give us anything and we would use it as a divisive tool. Those of us residing in the Diaspora have developed a counter-culture mentality that causes us to feel detached from what is happening to women and girls generally in our homeland. We do care for our immediate families and probably account for a hefty portion of remittances that have been said to outweigh foreign aide. But, the adverse issues that affect our kind back home are unfortunate events happening to “those women Upline.” We may attend dance parties organized by groups claiming to raise funds for causes related to womenfolk, after all, we are always looking for opportunities to show off our latest fashion and for other superficial reasons, we attend the myriad social events in our community every week. We are often more interested in who is wearing what, whose husband/boyfriend is fooling around with whom, etc., than any reason that was given for the event, many times we do not even know the cause for the event.
The adage, “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything” seems to suit us well. Salone women in the Diaspora do not come together to fight against any injustice happening to us as a group back home or even where we reside. Not because we do not know how to come together; we all know how quickly we gang up on our gigolo husbands’ or boyfriends’ other women, we use our precious sisterhood power to fight against each other rather than use it to fight our common enemies; we allow ourselves to join political parties that relegate us to a “women’s wing” where we engage in vicious cat fights against each to the point of not making any real gains in the parties.
We have to reflect and make positive changes to benefit womenfolk in Salone.
Legacy for future generations
Of course there are many other class and socioeconomic dividing lines, but we cannot possibly address all of them. However, we believe that the above are at the core of why women are failing to be a cohesive force for change in Sierra Leone. We must strive to resolve these issues in order that we pave the way in a positive direction for our daughters and grand daughters. As the lucky generation to have so much more opportunities to set things right, we owe it to our ancestors who were not as fortunate; we are their voices and must, therefore, strive to erase all the lines that divide us so as to achieve progress for generations to come.
The fate of the next generation is in our hands, we must hear their cries! As the lucky 30% literate Salone women, we owe it to our daughters and grand daughters to create a template that will help generate a pipeline of women who will be equipped to take up the fight for a transformed Sierra Leone, a society that will give everyone, regardless of gender, an equal opportunity in all socioeconomic and political spheres.