The Thing About the 30% Quota for Women in Sierra Leone

Photo via Chad Finer
It might surprise you to learn that the average middle class educated Sierra Leonean woman does not think about women's rights. More likely than not she also sees little wrong with the sexual innuendos and unsolicited sexual advances she might face at work or elsewhere. If she's a civil servant, she will not think that the reason why her promotion is delayed while young men new to the service move up quick is an indication of inequality. Or that her male peers with equal years of service seem to rise faster in ranks than she does as a marker of discrimination. This same middle class educated Sierra Leonean woman is neither angry nor infuriated by statistics that say that Sierra Leone is a death trap for expecting mothers and children under 5. When she is pregnant she will give birth without much alarm in a suitable hospital in Sierra Leone, or she will travel to the UK to deliver her unborn child taking advantage of their universal access to health care.

When some other middle class women form women's organizations to mobilize and lobby for women's issues, more likely than not she will not join them nor will she care about the plight of women less fortunate than her. She is neither concerned nor moved when injustice befalls other women of her social standing. In fact she might even look down on the women in these organizations, or class them as opportunists barely seeking individual gains or political power. The average middle class educated Sierra Leonean woman is more concerned about herself, getting or keeping her man, her immediate family, what to wear, and most importantly who to call for the next bit of juicy gossip. This woman is too busy and involved in her own personal growth and development than to worry about women's issues.

So, the plight of women in Sierra Leone remains unchanged because women in positions to empower other women or challenge the status quo are not doing so. We do not see ourselves reflected in statistics and reports that say Sierra Leone is one of the worst countries to be born a girl. We middle class educated Sierra Leonean women prefer to fight and compete with other women who are just like us than fighting for change.

Last year I went to an International Women's Day Celebration at an Irish diplomat's house on invitation from a member of the Mano River Women's Peace Network (MARWOPNET). There were many middle class educated Sierra Leonean women present. The host introduced us to Elizabeth Simbiwa Sogbo-Tortu who was barred from contesting for the chieftaincy in Kono because she was a woman, although traditional law in the Southern region permits female chiefs. The case was then being pursued at the Supreme Court. We ate, drank, and at the end of it all, we bought Tee Shirts with the phrase: De Absolute Minimum 30% quota representation for women in politics. I didn't think much of the tee shirt then nor of its message, for as a middle class educated Sierra Leonean woman, I didn’t see how that issue related to me.

It took a long time for me to process what I heard that day and for me to realize that in my passive silence, I too was doing my part to collaborate in the continued oppression of women in Sierra Leone. It also took a while for me to see the connection between one woman being barred from political participation and my own struggles to build a small business. I started looking at my life and my work as a young woman in this society. I began to count the number of times I had gone to an office to make a pitch for my show or promote my work only to be met with an unwelcomed sexual advance. I counted all the times I felt I had to encourage someone's advances towards me with a dinner or lunch date in hopes that I could get a sponsor for my show. I thought of the girls I had interviewed on my show who knew little or nothing about their own reproductive health. Sadly many of their sexual encounters leave them at risk of contracting an STD or unwanted pregnancy. Then I thought about all the countless babies and women who had died in my neighborhood of Banana Water in the 4 years I had been in Sierra Leone. Very quickly, it all started to make sense and I began to see the correlations between my frustrations, and the current status of women in Sierra Leone. And soon I became convinced that surely things would be different if there were more women in government and decision making positions in Salone.

The men who made passes at me did so because they see young women as sexual objects and more likely than not the young woman who left his office before I did gave in to his demands. That young woman probably knows several other women who have had their way because they gave in to someone's sexual solicitations. And all these women grow up in a society where they are told that the only way to get ahead is by profiteering from a relationship with a man. These women like myself grow up accepting what we are told about a woman's place in society and we do very little to rock the boat. While the statistics show women in Sierra Leone as deprived we don't feel like those numbers relate to us because as middle class women we tend to have fairly better lives. Combined with socio-cultural traditional norms that many times favor men over women, adverse conditions continue and women’s issues remain stagnant.

Proponents of the 30 percent quota for women in government and leadership position believe that more political representation for women in governance will be the beginning of social change for women in Sierra Leone. While the cause is being championed by a coalition of women's groups, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission was first to call for a "30 percent representation of women in elected assemblies, cabinets and other political posts, to increase to 50/50 gender parity within the next 10 years."

There are several different types of quotas already used in Sierra Leone. There is a quota that reserves 12 seats for paramount chiefs in parliament and another for local government ward committees that sets a 1:1 male to female ratio. In the most recent council of Paramount chiefs elections no women were elected to parliament, the last time any female paramount chief was in parliament was in 2002. Currently, without a legislated system that enforces women’s inclusion in government there is only a total of 17/112 female parliamentarians, 2/24 female ministers, 4/24 deputy ministers, 3/17 female ambassadors, and 5 state institutions headed by women. If the 30% quota for women is passed in parliament, this means that all political parties will need to at minimum reserve 30% of the party’s symbols for women candidates.

At a stakeholder conference with different women’s organizations it was suggested that the bill should also legislate that political parties commit to giving women symbols for ‘safe’ or ‘winnable’ seats i.e a seat in a region that was previously won by the party. That is to say in places like Makeni and Bo that are historically a sureball for the ruling All People's Congress (APC) and leading opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) respectively, those party symbols would be given to women. Additionally, the proposal calls for half of the current 12 reserved paramount chief seats in parliament allocated for women. This would force the North which currently bars women from becoming chiefs to change this tradition or risk no representation in parliament.

The reality is that while more political representation for women is not going to change the status of women overnight, it will however sow the seeds of socio-cultural change. More women in government means heightened focus on women’s issues, more empowerment for women and will signal a more democratic and inclusive political landscape.

With a population of 51% women in the country a minimum 30% quota means that more opportunities for more women will exist.

If proponents of the 30% quota get the bill passed in parliament it will mean even more opportunities for middle class educated Sierra Leonean women who currently stand to benefit for positions in cabinet, government parastatals, and political parties. With more women in positions of authority, the gender dynamics will change and the amount of women who have to put up with unwanted sexual solicitations will diminish. And more and more young women will meet women as department heads when they go in search of opportunities or to promote their work. Sierra Leoneans are a very political people who stand by their political parties. So if the APC or SLPP promote and adopt 30% quotas in their parties, they will be sending a clear message to all their supporters that women are equally as capable of representing the party. This will signal a paradigm shift in Sierra Leone’s gender dynamics.

I hope that the young women reading this post will think long and hard about the consequences and repercussions of our current lack of involvement in women’s issues. We need to organize, participate, and lend our voices to the struggle. It is essential that we, especially those who are middle class and educated understand that what affects one woman in Kono resounds in the streets of Freetown. Every time someone doubts your abilities as a woman whether it be in driving, your business acumen, or tenacity another woman somewhere is being subjugated to a much more significant injustice for the same reason. With the 30% quota women in Sierra Leone have an opportunity to start a campaign for their rights and to overturn years of disenfranchisement. I don’t have to say that women are equally as capable of running this country’s private and public sectors as men. But we have to fight for our right to do so.

Educated women in Sierra Leone should be ashamed of the conditions that we allow other women to endure. We are more than sex objects and tools and pretty things to be seen and used. We are human beings, and deserve the same rights and opportunities. The time for Sierra Leone’s women to make a push for change is right now. If you take a survey of the 50/50, MARWOPNET, and other women’s organizations, many of their members are as old as our mothers and grandmothers but it doesn’t have to be so. Young women must join the fight for women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone. Perhaps with young voices, and young ideas, change will come at a faster pace. The next elections will be in 2012, let us make it a priority that the 30% quota representation for women in government and political parties becomes a reality before then. The future is now ladies so let’s get working.

I support the minimum 30% quota for women of Sierra Leone.

(This post originally appeared on Vickie Remoe's blog, Vickie Remoe is executive producer and host of the Vickie Remoe Show and a social media enthusiast.)