As the euphoria over the US elections settles, another vote (far less in the media spotlight) is taking place. On 17 November, Sierra Leone will hold its third multi-party election since the end of the civil war, 10 years ago.
While we wait to see how fair and free these elections will be, what is already certain is that Sierra Leonean women will be far less well-represented than men, due to the failure in passing the proposed Gender Equality Bill before the election. Women make up 52 per cent of the population but, at the close of Parliament, only 13 per cent of its members were women. They also make up less than 10 per cent of top civil service positions.
Had the Gender Equality Bill been passed, it would have mandated that there be 30-per-cent representation of women in the legislature. In this week's election, even if all the female candidates are elected, which appears unlikely, women would only make up 6.5 per cent of parliament.
The decreasing presence of women in the country's legislature is likely to have an adverse impact on the advancement of women's rights in Sierra Leone. UN Women recommend using quotas to make justice systems work better for women. Of the 28 countries that have reached or exceeded the 30-per-cent critical mass mark in national parliaments, at least 23 have used some form of quota. In countries such as Rwanda, Costa Rica and Tanzania, progressive laws advancing women's rights have swiftly followed a quota-based increase in women's parliamentary representation.
There is valid debate around the use of quotas. It is clear that such quotas need to be combined with social and cultural change in order to have significant impact. However, they are often seen as an important first step. The Convention Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Sierra Leone ratified in 1988, mandates the use of temporary special measures, such as quotas, to increase representation of women in decision-making at all levels.
Parliament's failure to pass the Gender Equality Act before its close has led to some criticism of woman parliamentarians themselves. The passage of the Bill was stymied by splits along party lines, which the female parliamentarians could have tackled through a show of unity. However, the blame cannot be placed solely on their shoulders; it is not only women who are responsible for the safeguarding of their rights and for ensuring proper parliamentary representation. It is clear that there was minimal political will on behalf of male parliamentarians, and some activists believe that the women were ‘set up to fail'. The women's movement had pressed for the Gender Equality Bill to be pushed through as a government bill, through a certificate of urgency, but this did not happen – although eight other bills were pushed through before the close of parliament. Beyond the Bill, high registration fees, intimidation and a legacy of electoral violence all contributed to fewer women standing for parliament in the election this week.
Sierra Leone's politicians have failed to see equal political participation as a human rights and development issue, rather than a ‘women's rights' issue. In 2005, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made an imperative recommendation that all political parties should be required to ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates for all public elections are women.
The battle for greater political participation has been ongoing for over a decade. Activists have worked tirelessly to establish and lead the Women's Situation Room, to mobilize for peaceful elections and involve women in peace advocacy, political analysis, observation and documentation. 2012 also marks the 15th anniversary of Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), an organization of women from across Africa promoting the role of women in peace-building and decision-making. They will be monitoring the election and promoting peace. The women's movement, of which I have been privileged to be a part, is vibrant, determined and can no longer be ignored. Their legacy has already been created as, prior to the war, not one female candidate had won an electoral seat.
Following the current elections, the women's movement will undoubtedly regroup and push once more to ensure that the Gender Equality bill is passed, but this will detract significant time and resources away from other critical issues facing women, particularly marginalized women, such as those who are incarcerated, or who are from rural areas.
The newly elected government, international donors and civil society all have a role in ensuring that this bill is passed urgently, in order to strengthen Sierra Leone's future development.