The gathering in a well-lit Sierra Leone classroom comes off as remarkably joyful.
“By my side… by my side…” chants a group of vibrantly-clad women, swaying and clapping in unison. “No longer men in front and the women at the back, but women and men walking side-by-side.”
In Makeni, Sierra Leone’s fourth-largest city, a mobile campaign school has just swung through. Run by the civil society-organized Campaign for Good Governance (watch video below) and the 50/50 Group, and supported by UN Women, it is part of a two-week programme to teach women skills that will help them compete in the lead up to Sierra Leone’s November 2012 presidential, parliamentary and local council elections.
The political environment and elections in Sierra Leone have traditionally been almost exclusively dominated by men, and the school is part of a larger series of activities supported by UN Women, to foster equality across the country.
Fatmata Kargbo, a 50-year-old widow and retired school headmistress, is running for a seat in local council elections in her constituency, Ropolon Junction. She believes that her ability to work well with people, resolve conflict and reach agreements will work in her favour. During training discussions she stresses the need for a different, more caring approach in the public sphere. “Women have lagged behind for too long,” she says.
Political participation by women remains abysmally low in Sierra Leone. Just 17 out of 124 parliamentarians are currently women; women make up 18.9 per cent of female councilors in the local government – none at the level of chairperson – and they comprise less than 10 per cent of top civil service positions.
For those who do consider contesting elective positions, the gendered barriers span social, economic and cultural factors: from stereotypical mindsets among families and communities, to limited time and financial resources.
Nevertheless, at the school’s launch in Freetown on 19 June 2012, Dr Josephine Odera, UN Women’s regional director, reinforced the target put forward by the Beijing Platform for Action following the landmark 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. “I’d like to see 30 per cent of women in parliament,” she said. “It is about time we have more women in politics and push gender issues forward in Sierra Leone.”
The mobile school speaks mostly to the need for greater knowledge among women across the country about political issues and processes. With its crew of political experts and coaches, it stopped for two days in each of the Sierra Leone’s 14 administrative districts, involving more than 400 women in role play, discussions with seasoned parliamentarians and local councilors, and mock interviews with journalists. Each task developed a new aspect of leadership, campaigning and personal development.
UN Women has placed particular focus on increasing women’s political participation ahead of the 2012 elections. Aside from the mobile school, it has partnered with local organizations on in-depth trainings and community awareness-raising sessions on women’s human rights across the country. Working with politicians, legal experts and activists, it has helped to refine and legal processes in support of women’s political empowerment. This includes a draft Gender Equality Bill, which calls for a minimum 30 per cent quota representation for women in decision-making, and is due to be submitted soon to the country’s parliament.
Other activities, such as preparation for a ‘Women’s Situation Room’ are underway, in a bid to both curtail election-related violence and bring more women into electoral processes. (Following a positive example set in Liberia, the Situation Room will be an NGO-led platform that engages women, youth and the media to, amongst other things, commit to prevent all forms of electoral violence).
In Makeni, the 44 women being trained had all faced discrimination, from their administration, and communities. All, whether as political actors or concerned citizens, wished to bring the concerns of women more prominently onto the political agenda, and push for equal treatment. Yet while the women spoke of positive social change ahead for Sierra Leone under female leadership, few saw their needs as distinct from those of the men they live and work with. “I want to win for my community,” confirms Mabinty Kadija Sillah, a midwife, and the first woman to run for a public position in her constituency.
And as the session winds down, the song begins. It fits the mood and the aspirations of the women trainees. “No longer men in front and the women at the back. Women and men walking side-by-side.”