In 2009, Elizabeth Torto ran in an election for paramount chief of Kono District, Sierra Leone. Her father held the position before he passed away, as did his father, and Torto’s great grandfather before that.
“It was my inherited right that I be paramount chief,” she tells Think Africa Press. But there had never been a female chief of Kono. “There was violence,” Torto recalls, “the community divided. The United Nations intervened because of what they were hearing on the radio.”
Media reports from that time describe incidents in which members of the all-male Paro Society blocked roads leading out of the district capital of Koidu and attacked vehicles suspected of carrying Torto. The UN hastily facilitated a helicopter evacuation to Freetown.
Torto refused to give up, and took the matter to the courts. There, she encountered the same sort of opposition that had interrupted her campaign in Kono. “There was a judge. He said, ‘My hands are tied. This one comes from above,” Torto continues.
Reflecting on the situation, Torto says she wished she had known women in positions of power who she could have called on to assist her. “It would have made things much easier,” she concludes.
Tomorrow, on November 17, Sierra Leoneans have an opportunity to elect such a person.
In what is expected to be a tight race between the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the SLPP’s Kadi Sesay could become the country’s first female vice-president.
Sesay has been the first woman to fill a number of high-profile positions in Sierra Leone. She was the first woman to head a department at Fourah Bay College, the top educational institute in the country. She then went on to head the National Commission for Democracy, which was instrumental in Sierra Leone’s transition to a multi-party state. Soon after, she was Sierra Leone’s first female Minister of Development and Economic Planning, and then Minister of Trade and Industry.
“I have always played a role that is not the typical, stereotyped role for women,” Sesay explains at her home in Freetown. “It’s been a little difficult…there have been quite a few people who are not sure whether the country is ready.”
On the SLPP ticket alongside Julius Maada Bio for president, Sesay said that if elected, she will work to open up political and economic space for more women to secure positions of power in Sierra Leone.
The SLPP is widely viewed as the underdog to President Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC. But there are ten political parties, and many observers speculate that the vote will be close enough to deny the APC an absolute majority. Without 55% of the electorate, a second round of voting will be required. In that situation, the SLPP could stand a realistic chance of securing enough of the smaller parties’ supporters to take a surprise victory.
Such a win would arrive at the end of a tumultuous year for women’s rights in Sierra Leone.
On September 25, time ran out on efforts to pass legislation that would have required 30% of candidates for the 2012 election to be female. The private-members bill could have been passed with a package of eight other bills voted through parliament just before the session’s close. But the quota for women’s participation in government was shelved for a future sitting.
“It was set up to fail,” claims Nimata Majeks-Walker, founder of the 50/50 Group, which has promoted women’s rights in Sierra Leone since 2000. She speculates that male parliamentarians view the bill as a threat, and argues that women are being systematically kept out of politics.
“We feel that women have played a very active part in bringing peace to Sierra Leone,” Majeks-Walker continues. “If we played a very active part in bringing peace, we have a right to take part in managing the peace.”
But even if a bill requiring 30% of policy-makers to be women had passed, it is unlikely that political parties would have met that quota. According to the National Electoral Commission, just 38 of 586 parliamentary nominees registered for the 2012 election were women – or 6.5%. According to a September 2010 report by the Institute for Development Studies, women currently hold 13.5% of seats in Sierra Leone’s parliament. If voting patterns follow political parties’ nominations of women therefore, the upcoming election could reduce female representation by nearly half.
The SLPP slate for 2012 includes more spots for women than average – roughly 20%, according to Sesay. But APC officials conceded that as few as 5% of their candidates are women.
“We could have done better,” says Elizabeth Mans, president of the APC’s National Women’s Congress. “But at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: you have to win the election. To win an election, you can’t have just any female candidates; you have to have the right female candidates.”
Mans says that part of the problem is men nervous of sharing power. But she argues that it is also a challenge to convince women to leave roles assigned to them by a patriarchal society.
“Bringing in women, from that culture, that background – it takes time,” she says. “It is about making the women step up.”
Barbara Bangura is a lead consultant with the Women’s Situation Room, which promotes dialogue for peaceful elections. She cautions against assuming a female politician will work for women simply because of their sex.
“One of the challenges we’ve had is we have not been able to access our female politicians,” Bangura explains. “They’ve either been busy or there’s been a gap in terms of accessing them.”
A complaint repeated by APC-supporters is that during Sesay’s two terms as a federal minister, she neglected women’s issues and ignored women working at a grassroots level.
But Bangura says she has high hopes for Sesay. “We have access to her, which I think is very important,” Bangura explains. “She’s contacted people before to talk about issues and things like that. So I think it will be to our advantage if we have a woman as running mate.”
In addition, Sesay has weathered political opponents’ attacks on her character, the nature of which are a major concern for women contemplating public life in Sierra Leone.
“That is one of the reasons that women here are scared to come forward, because the men will concoct all kinds of stories,” Sesay says. She explains that it is common for female candidates to have to cope with rumours of sexual misconduct, and that even the possibility of such accusations dissuades many women from entering politics.
“This is a way of dampening the spirits of women, this is tantamount to violence against women,” Sesay charges. She notes that she has experienced such attacks, but has not been embarrassed.
“The more they insult me, the more they are going to lose votes,” she says. “I believe that, so it doesn’t matter. I am not intimidated.”
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