Image by Steve Evans via Flickr.
Political uproar has been storming one nation as November approaches, bringing with it a bout of gender-based drama and discussions on equality.
Gender equality has received much publicity in the days preceding the upcoming US presidential election, following Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s controversial “binders full of women” remark amongst other contentious instances.
But America is not the only nation with gender and politics on its mind.
A few thousand miles away from the United States, women are attempting to increase their political involvement in Sierra Leone’s third general election since the end of the civil war in 2002.
For the past ten years, Sierra Leonean women have fought to have their voices heard in government, but this year’s election on November 17 has made gender issues far more transparent.
With a failed female quota system in parliament and an increase in candidate fees, women are falling behind their male counterparts. But Kadi Sesay, the country’s first female vice presidential candidate to run for a leading party, has marked a major milestone in Sierra Leone’s history, leaving citizens questioning what this election symbolizes for women.
In a blog post written by Sesay earlier this year, she said, “My candidacy is fuelled by a desire to change this state-sanctioned apathy towards women’s rights and offer renewed hope to women in the country who have, despite a lack of representation, always been at the forefront of change.”
This “lack of representation” was addressed in mid-September when women in parliament issued a bill enforcing a quota that would ensure 30 per cent of parliament members were female seeing as 52 per cent of Sierra Leone is female. This bill took two years to draft and was submitted on urgent grounds, but it was dismissed in late September after the five-year parliamentary session ended.
All ten officially recognized political parties support the 30 per cent quota. But the results of the parliamentary nominations on October 15 show that this desired quota will likely not be met.
According to the National Electoral Commission, 38 out of 586 parliamentary nominees vying for a seat in the 124-seat parliament were female.
In each of the previous two sessions of parliament, 16 women were members.
All presidential candidates and five out of nine vice presidential candidates are male.
Thus, Kadi Sesay’s candidacy remains a symbol of how women have progressed in Sierra Leone. Sesay’s political party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party, is one of two dominant parties in the country, only second to the political party of the current president Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress.
If Sesay’s political party were to win this election, she would be the nation’s first female vice president.
The lack of female political involvement can be related back to issues of oppression and stereotyping in the country, though poverty may also be a factor.
According to The World Factbook, about 70 per cent of Sierra Leoneans are below the poverty line. Women and children make up a large portion of this population.
This works for and against the National Electoral Commission’s decision to increase candidate nomination fees. Men and women alike may not be financially able to support their candidacy. But at the same time, financially unstable taxpayers will no longer be as liable to pay money to support candidates.
Sierra Leone is not alone in its struggle for gender equality in national politics, but many African countries are seeing the gender gap narrow. According to an article in The Guardian, the number of women in Senegal’s parliament increased by 21 per cent to 43 per cent following the recent election. Rwanda’s parliament is comprised of 49 per cent women. This is the highest in any country in the world.
Sierra Leone has not reached such peaks yet, however, with the possibility of a female vice president and the resurrection of a 30 per cent quota, this nation of nearly six million, is easing its way to gender equality for all. Perhaps a more diverse front is what Sierra Leone needs to conquer its economic and humanitarian issues.
Sesay concludes her blog post with a hopeful and eye-opening message.
“Only by opening up civic institutions, government and business to all, and challenging the unwritten rules that exclude so many from political participation, can we ensure lasting change in Sierra Leone.” M