The report presents the details of engagement on the just concluded experience sharing and reflection conducted with the various categories of women who played a critical role in diverse capacities to contribute to the successful outcome of the March 2018 Multi-Party Democratic elections in Sierra Leone. It brought to light as well as created a space for dialogue on the different experiences of women as voters, aspirants, candidates, and activist specifically zeroing in on women’s experiences with violence whiles also noting their dynamic strategic intervention employed in a number of conflict mitigation and nonviolence campaigns. Interactions with key security stakeholder groups presenting on the strategies of the key security forces as part of the holistic integrated elections security strategy engagement reaffirmed the fact that the security strategy for the election was general and did not take consideration of gender-related issues that pose threat to the safety and security of women then as was the case with many other key elections management entities critical of which were the political parties hence the low numbers of women awarded symbols to contest in the elections.
The findings noted in the report captured the stories narrated by women aspirants, candidates, and women activist of their ordeals and the battles they had to fight and conquer in their political pursuit. These findings ranged from physical to psychological violence’s experienced within and outside their political parties with no regard for redress despite several complaints and reports filed to the police and no hope of ever accessing justice for the injustices meted out to them.
Politically machinated violence was widespread in the last two months leading to the elections though it did not escalate to a magnitude that threatened or compromise the free, fair and peaceful of the elections, however in the midst of the violence women became direct targets especially those contesting for the different categories of elected positions.
Political parties sidelined over 90% of the women who aspired to contest for the party symbol to legitimize their candidacy for the elections. Some women’s were awarded the symbols but the very symbol was retrieved from them and handed over to their male counterpart with no justifiable explanation.
The popular view points from even women activist promoting women’s participation in elections was that one reason why women were not able to break barriers within the political parties was because they were very much caught up in the intra party struggles for leadership through the post-elections period to the point that they lost focus in recognizing the challenges that confront them regarding the securing of their leadership spaces within the parties. The question to be asked is have the women even taken time to organize themselves to even understand key political process such as the critical process of awarding of the symbol in the political party?
Like the majority of political party loyalist, many are of the view that women are also divided along partisan lines and such they are tempted to support the men within their political parties rather than a female from other political parties. The gender support versus the political party loyalty takes precedence in the context of elections especially that in most cases there is expectation that even if symbols are not awarded there is likelihood for compensation in other political appointment positions and this has been the case in many instances though women have not largely benefited from these kinds of arrangement.
Nevertheless, one thing was clear women have become more resolved than ever before to overcome all challenges no matter how insurmountable they may appear with the aim of reaching their goals.
The Context Reality
The March 2018 Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Elections in Sierra Leone had its own impacts and legacies and women’s experiences and perspectives were diverse depending on which platform they were engaging the process. Women looked forward to the elections with high expectation and hope that women will this time around be able to claim greater spaces in political leadership and that there will be an increase in the number of women awarded symbols by political parties, winning seats in the different elected positions especially when there had been a lot of commitment from the political parties to ensure that women are supported in their numbers to take political leadership positions.
The knowledge, Attitude and Practice survey done in April of 2016 raised women’s hopes the more when the findings revealed that 70% of voters were ready to vote for women but it is clear that intent and the reality are a director opposite especially in a context where citizens voting decision is largely dependent on political party affiliation as opposed to policy and individual competence. Women’s experiences during the electoral process reaffirmed the fact that one of the key factors inhibiting women’s participation in elections is violence.
Violence against women was played out in different forms during the electoral process and worst still these violence’s were perpetrated intra and inter-political parties as well as those perpetrated by blind loyal supporters of political parties. Stories captured revealed a catalog of horrible experiences ranging from physical to psychological abuse that woman had to go through as they struggle to claim their right to vote and be voted for within and outside their political parties, an experience that even torched on the very dignity as women. Despite these experiences it was also useful to give visibility to the role and contributions made by women in building solidarity around women aspirants and candidates through the diverse financial, moral support and otherwise provided for women but specifically the tremendous role women played in the prevention and mediation of elections violence across the country, building networks and working with different stakeholder groups as peace champions and ambassadors at community level. The reflection and experience sharing, more importantly, was a platform to think through how the lesson learned, knowledge built and relations and networks created and strengthened throughout women’s engagement in the process can be translated into a useful resource in the form of a well thought through strategic road map that will be used to sustain women’s advocacy around the political, social-cultural and economic concerns in the new governance administration.
Sierra Leone is a signatory to many international, regional and sub-regional instrument that promotes the creation of an enabling environment for women to participate actively in elections but the realities on the ground are very quiet hostile
SUMMARY OF ACTIVITY IMPLEMENTATION
Twelve experience sharing sessions were held in Bo, Pujehun and Bonthe District in the Southern Region, Koinadugu, Tonkolili, Kambia, Port Loko and Bombali in the Northern Region and Kenema and Kono in the Eastern Region over a one-day period starting from the …. to the ….of June 2018. Thirty-five women in each district except for Bombali and Western Urban which target fifty and seventy participants respectively were drawn from women’s activist groups, political party women’s groups who took front line roles in different capacities ranging from elections nonviolence campaign, elections observation, supporting women candidates among others.
The diversity in the experience and the uniqueness in the strategies women employed to engage the different facets of the electoral process made for very interesting dialogue and learning’s that CGG intends to utilize in the post-election context as a useful advocacy point of focus. Women narrated their ordeals and the challenges and struggles they went through in their pursuit of contesting the elections. What was interesting in all of the discourse but also quite terrifying is the fact that women had to fight battles from different fronts; battles within the political parties and from opposition loyalist. The nature of some of the stories narrative was of such grave magnitude that one would imagine that some redress measures should have been initiated to hold to account their perpetrators but it was also clear that their attackers had political direction and backing and the police were arms tied to address their complaints.
STORIES FROM THE FIELD
As highlighted inter alia women’s experiences of violence ranged from physical assault, intimidation, destruction of property not just on their person but also on their families and loyal supporters. The magnitude of violence was such that for some women even their close friends were terrified to associate with them for fear of been targeted, hence it became a lone battle. It was interesting to note that the violence on women was not just about them not being part of the All People’s Party (APC) who are the dominant political parties in the north or about women not being part of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) which is the dominant party in the south it was as much a gender discriminatory struggle just as it was a partisan struggle. For most of the women e contesting under the flagship of the National Grand Alliance (NGC) an emerging new political party but was also consider a party with the potential to clinch votes from the two strongest parties, the violence experienced was even scarier. In port Loko, the experiences of two candidates stood out in terms of the unbelievable ordeal but also the coping mechanism they employed to overcome and put a stop to the violence she was confronted with.
Mamadi Kamara who contested as a councilor in Ward 234 Port Loko district, shared the experience of how she was humiliated, assaulted and property destroyed just because she was a woman contesting in an APC dominated region. Her crime was that she had contested under the flagship of the NGC Party. In her own words “her experience by saying, if you are not from the APC party, you are not entitled to contest in the elections”. Her first direct encounter with the violence was a day two purported policemen attached her whiles she was visiting her neighbor and before she knew what was happening a group of thugs has stormed her residence, vandalized her shop and went away with Le 15,000,000 she loaned from the bank for her business, assaulted her husband. She was even able to identify the thugs whom she said were nicknamed “Meddo, Timberland, Ibrahim Sorie, Bacha amongst others”. The physical, verbal and psychological abuse was getting so unbearable that she decided to move out of her own home to seek solace at her friend’s place. When the thugs realized she had moved they reported to cheap and dastardly pranks such as emptying human excretes inside her home. Though she reported the issue on several occasion to the police it appeared the police were not able to protect her for obvious reasons; the mastermind behind the terrors in the district was a very powerful politician who was also very strong government official at the time. She had to also resort to foolish pranks just to protect herself, she carried acid with her and she was also threatening that should any of the thugs confront her again she wouldn’t think twice in retaliating. This became her everyday experience until the time it was declared there was going to be a runoff. She wasn’t successful but she was resolved to continue to contribute to development in her district and to also contest in 2023.
Madam Aminata TS from constituency 075 ward 233 in the Port Loko City contested as counselor under the NGC party with five other political parties covering four sections within the district. According to her, her experience is difficult because the district was dominated by the ruling APC. On several occasion, she was asked by thugs of the incumbent party to step down or risk burning down of her residence. Because of these threats her campaign was affected as her supporters were becoming very much afraid to identify with her for fear of been harmed. Even her husband abandoned her and referred to her as a prostitute who wants to use politics as a platform to attract men to her. She also experiences the ‘pulling- down syndrome’ which was mainly from her female counterparts supporting the incumbent political party. she was not supported by her female cohorts.
Fatmata Kamara, the former councilor from constituency 069 from ward 079 stories was quite interesting because the violence she went through was perpetrated from people within her own political party who never wanted her to be awarded the symbol to contest. She was the people’s choice and that was widely known within the party. She has done a lot within the council and she was admired and respected for that by members of her constituency. She had facilitated the construction of water wells in the 82 villages in her ward as well as the installation of solar lights for the communities. Her people knew if she was given the opportunity she would have been able to do a lot more to develop in the constituency. Even though her name was on the list of awardees some members within the party used very diabolic approaches to deny her of the symbol only to be called to Freetown to have a peaceful settlement of the issue; a settlement that did nothing to address the abuses that she had to confront. This clearly signals that in the absence of an organized system within the parties that is willing to open up the space for equal participation women will continue to be secondary players that are only useful for supporting the men occupy and sustain themselves in the highest levels of political leadership.
In the same vein, Fatmata Bowara kamara of constituency 108 was a parliamentary aspirant under the (APC) political party. She narrated her ordeal as follows:Being a former councilor of twenty (20) years teaching experience she decided to run for the position of member of parliament in her constituency because she believed she can use the experience and service she had gained and demonstrated throughout her years as councilor: It was because of that passion and hard work that her constituency requested her to run for office. Being also a long standing member of her party she understands the gender dynamics of the party she belonged. For Wara her own experience of violence was within her political party. In her own words “I was the people’s choice but I was sabotage by my own party members”. Her name actually appeared on the list of awardees of the symbol but sixteen days later the symbol was taken back with no explanation for the said act coupled with the extreme intimidation and she and her family had to go through. Her house was vandalized together with her vehicle. She became stranded as she had to leave her home in each of safety for herself and her family.
The party stalwarts could not help her and also the police could not be of help either. According to her all of the violence she faced was orchestrated by her opponent vying for the same symbol; the incumbent parliamentarian together with his thugs. She ended by saying she is still strong and will not leave the fight, she really wanted to represent her people and she is ready to even further her studies because of the challenges she was faced with.
These were the kinds of stories that were pronounced in all of the dialogue sessions. Women’s experiences similarly women activist also had their share of the experience. Marcella Samba Sesay the Chairperson of the National Elections Watch shared her stories with women. As national chairperson, she leads a network of over 375 organizations to monitor and observe the electoral process. Over the years NEW has always conducted the parallel vote tabulation exercise which was meant to give credibility and legitimacy to the result of the elections. However, in the 2018 elections, her experience with this exercise was far from what she expected. The parallel vote tabulation was one of NEW flagship electoral exercise and it has been widely publicized to give citizens and even the political party a sense of what it entails so she and the members were of the view that this will be something that Sierra Leoneans will appreciate and be proud of but it turned out to be the opposite. When it was declared by NEW that none of the candidates had captured the 55% votes that the constitution stipulates to qualify any candidate the victory for the first round and that there is definitely going to be a runoff all hell went loose on her. She faced all sorts of psychological abuse including death threat messages from loyalist and even executive members of the incumbent party. At some point, she had to confront her adversaries head on.
Women activist like Valnora Edwin, the Executive Director of Campaign for Good Governance all had their fair share of experience with psychological abuse throughout the electoral cycle. Being vocal and standing for the truth became a taboo. Exposing the ills of the incumbent party as they made frantic efforts to compromise the credibility of the elections, public display of public servants in campaign activities being exposed became a crime for which many women like her suffered severe consequences of character assassination and threats.
Despite all of this, there were also some very significant stories of how women came together to reduce the risk of violence were threatening the peace and stability of Sierra Leone during the final days of the electoral process. Initiatives such as the Women situation room, the eminent women from the West Africa Network for Peace Initiatives all put together made frantic efforts to bring; political leaders taking advantage of the presence of international observer missions especially the African former Head of States such as John Mahama, GoodLuck Jonathan among others to promote and get commitment to peace.
On the whol,e women did not achieve the minimum 30% representation that they had struggled for but their significant contribution to the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections that Sierra Leone cannot beunderstatedd and over sighted. The voice of women continues to be raised and their spirits continue to be heightened with new zeal for a refocuses strategy to break greater barriers in the 2023 multi-party elections.
Twelve successful dialogues were concluded. It was evident that the women had been looking for a platform to express themselves and gain freedom from the bondage of the trauma they carried within and they felt satisfied that the dialogue gave them that platform.
Despite the many experiences both positive and negative that women had articulated regarding their experiences in participating in electoral process efforts to capture and document these stories have been lacking therefore this documentary evidences that these dialogue produced both video and printed would serve as a reference for future engagement and lesson learning to strategize in an early timeline for the 2023 multi-party elections. Such a strategy would ensure that more women are given the space to participate in whatever capacity they deem fit and that a conducive and violence free environment is created and sustained for women to participate.
Key recommendation were proffered by participants based on their experiences and what they perceived might have been the primary barriers and triggers of violence and glass ceiling created for women to practically make any meaningful breakthrough within the political parties and in changing perceptions and mindsets formed about women’s political representation. These recommendations are also very useful thinking if implemented will lay the foundation for a stronger women’s movement that will be well organized and strategy placed to influence policies and practices that will promote women’s representation in governance and in the 2023 multi-party elections.
The development of the 19 point resolution document developed in a joint engagement between CGG and the 50/50 group which details women’s rights provisions to be integrated into the constitutional review report and submitted to the Constitutional Review Committee. The report itself took into account a number of these provisions and recommended a number of provisions that will promote equality and minimize all forms of discrimination against women including he expunging of Section 27 4D. Efforts should be made in the present governance dispensation to reintroduce and revive the constitutional review process for speedy parliamentary scrutiny and the subsequent referendum to ensure that the reviewed constitution is adopted.
Strengthening Democracy within Political Parties
Prior to the 2007 multi-party democratic elections, the Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) and the All People’s Congress (APC) were supported by the United Nations Integration Peace Mission in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) to develop a gender policy that will guide and influence a more gender sensitive the internal political arrangements. Efforts should be made by political parties to review its policies towards ensuring that some affirmative action is taken to increase the percentage of women warded symbols.
Through the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs a Gender and Empowerment Bill was developed but it never proceeded to consultation to parliamentary submission stage for adoption therefore efforts should be made to revive the bill and proceed with it to parliament for deliberation and adoption.
Support to Political Party Women
It is evident that most of the political party women lack the wherewithal to be able to engage strategically within the party. Most of the political party hierarchy structures lack a female representative and in such an arrangement the women’s voices are absent at the highest level of the political party decision making body. Hence their capacity to influence decisions to their advantage is almost impossible. Some efforts towards designing Programmes that will identify mentor and support women within the political party with the desire to aspire and contest for elected political positions.
Mobilizing support for women
Sierra Leone women are in the greater percentages of those who fall within the poverty bracket margin largely because of the high illiteracy level, lack of access to empowerment opportunities hence one of the key barriers to women’s breaking barriers in politics has always been linked to financial support which is key for an effective campaign. The nomination fees for candidacy are also quite high and this is quite costly for men not to mention women. Women should make early decisions about their political career and as such start early strategize around it. Political parties through the influence of a robust and strategic advocacy from the women within the parties to establish a support base fund that will support women’s campaign activities to an extent.