Women’s groups in Sierra Leone are hoping that at least 30 percent of seats in the West African nation’s parliament will be held by women after general elections due in November.
They are urging President Ernest Bai Koroma and his government to come good on pledges to boost women’s involvement in decision-making processes, with an emphasis on political participation and leadership.
“I’d like to remind the president that this is elections year, and we think he needs to make sure his MPs support his promises and that we have the gender equality bill (enacted) into law before the elections,” said Barbara Bangura, coordinator of Sierra Leone’s Grassroots Gender Equality Movement.
President Koroma made a public commitment during International Women’s Day celebrations in 2011 that his government would work with the Sierra Leone Female Parliamentary Caucus (SLEFPAC) to develop and table a private members’ bill in parliament on women’s political participation and leadership.
A draft bill under review by civil society groups stipulates that political parties must field a minimum of 30 percent of women as candidates in parliamentary and local council elections, according to Bangura.
The bill also proposes that political parties should have reserved seats for women and field women candidates in districts they regard as their strongholds.
But women’s rights campaigners, who hope to see the bill tabled in July, are concerned it may not be passed as some male parliamentarians have argued against certain provisions, especially the one on reserved seats, out of fear of losing their positions.
“The idea is for political parties to ensure that those seats that are reserved for women are winnable seats, but the men are saying that such a policy is undemocratic,” said Melrose Kargbo, head of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) in Sierra Leone.
“They (men) say such a rule does not allow people to freely choose who they want to represent them and infringes on people’s basic human rights,” Kargbo told TrustLaw by phone from the country’s capital city, Freetown.
‘LEFT OUT FOR TOO LONG’
Women’s rights groups have defended their position by invoking articles in Sierra Leone’s 1991constitution which say that special measures and policies can be taken where there is inequality that needs to be rectified, Kargbo said.
Women make up 51 percent of the country’s population of 6 million. But there are only 17 women out of 124 members of parliament (MPs), and only 18.9 percent of local government councillors are female, with zero representation at the level of chairperson and less than 10 percent in top civil service positions, according to UN Women.
“If we really want to practice true democracy, the women have to be involved… we have been left out for too long,” Bangura told AlertNet from Freetown.
“It’s not about competition with men; it’s about working together to move Sierra Leone forward in a very positive way,” she added.
Civil society organisations have been lobbying male parliamentarians and councillors to support the bill. They have also met with women in communities across the country, encouraging them to push their local MPs to vote for the bill if it is tabled in parliament.
“We are going to the women to say ‘engage your MPs that you want the quota bill passed into law or else you won’t vote for them (in coming elections)’,” Bangura said.
Meanwhile, women’s groups are also advocating for political parties to introduce voluntary quotas for women’s participation, in case the bill is delayed or not tabled in parliament.
“If one party starts, the others will be forced to follow suit,” Bangura said.