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Newly elected MPs, Rebecca Yei Kamara, Bernadette Wuyatta Songa and Emelia Lolloh Tongi

Power to Women in Sierra Leone

One of our most ground-breaking In Their Lifetime projects – Power to Women in Sierra Leone – ended in August 2018. In a society where women are often marginalised and subject to violence, the project championed women’s rights, supported female political candidates, campaigned against violence, and helped change structures and systems so women’s voices were heard.
Project aims
  • Improve the participation of women in local and national government

  • Tackle the culture of gender-based violence in Kailahun and Kono Districts

The project worked towards these goals by building upon structures which already existed – networks of women’s groups across the two districts. The project built the capacity of these groups, enabling them to support women in their communities, especially to take on roles of responsibility, campaigning against gender-based violence (GBV) and advocating for changes to structures to support women.

An independent evaluation was conducted at the end of the project to assess the impact of these actions – the findings from which are explained in this end-of-project review.

A challenging environment for women

More than a decade after it emerged from a brutal civil war, and five years after the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in 2014, Sierra Leone faces huge challenges to lift its people out of poverty. More than 60% of people still live below the poverty line.

Women are key to driving economic growth and building thriving, resilient societies. But Sierra Leone’s patriarchal culture means women have little access to power and resources. The culture is also characterised by high levels of violence against women and girls.

Source: Girls Not Brides and UN Global Database

Violence against women in Sierra Leone
James Hutchinson
Women and politics

Women’s marginalisation also extends to the political stage. There are many barriers that stand in front of aspiring female politicians – practical ones such as the registration fees for candidacy nomination, which have risen in recent years. There is also a long-standing male-dominated culture which often confines women’s leadership positions within communities to the roles of ‘Mammy Queens’ – a role that only deals with a limited number of women’s activities. Add to this the legacy of violence that has historically accompanied elections in Sierra Leone, and you get a very hostile environment for potential female candidates.

Working against this backdrop, the Power to Women project aimed to transform the culture, at least at a local level, to one where women could thrive alongside men.

Strengthening women’s groups

The work of the Power to Women project was focused on pre-existing networks of locally based women’s groups (or women’s executives as they’re sometimes called). These groups had been set up to provide a forum where women could share their experiences within the community, especially challenges relating to gender inequality – it also enabled them to escalate these challenges to local government and to collectively raise awareness of them. The groups also served to build the competency and confidence of its members to operate in the public sphere, with an ultimate view to them holding positions of influence in government.

The Power to Women project sought to build the capacity of these groups, both individually and collectively. It did this by providing training for the members of the women’s groups in areas such as leadership, confidence-building, and management as well as practical support, in the form of computers and a motorbike to enable efficient travel to meet with remote communities and members of the local government.

The project also strengthened the organisational structure of the groups – most notably by supporting the establishment of a women’s secretariat in each district. This constituted two staff from each network, who were based in the offices of the respective implementing partner organisations (NMJD in Kailahun and SEND in Kono). The secretariats become a hub for organising the various project initiatives such as mentoring, counselling and conflict mediation. They also become a critical function for interacting with local government and other stakeholders.

In total, the Power to Women project worked with 12,000 members, across over 300 women’s groups.

Women in government

One of the key milestones during the project was the 2018 national and local elections in Sierra Leone. It represented a prime opportunity not only to support women candidates, but to encourage political parties to champion women’s issues, especially around gender-based violence. The latter was achieved by both the women’s networks collaborating to produce a Women’s Manifesto.

The manifesto outlined desired changes in government – including more opportunities for women to be involved in local and national government, better access to education for girls and the protection of female candidates from intimidation and threats of violence.

The manifesto demanded that political parties prioritise gender education for their leadership and develop plans to ensure that women participate at all levels of decision-making. It also demanded that political parties adopt a 30% quota for political positions to be held by women, and furthermore for this quota to be passed into law by parliament.

The manifesto proved to be a potent weapon in calling for strong action against any violence or intimidation towards female candidates. A key success was the engagement of Paramount Chiefs, many of whom signed the manifesto.

Changing policies

Before the elections, the project supported the Women's Networks to have dialogue sessions with key stakeholders including the Paramount Chiefs and Political parties. The Paramount Chiefs committed to bringing in bylaws to protect women from intimidation before, during and after the elections.

Three political parties adopted the 30% minimum quota for female candidates.

It’s not straight-forward to quantify the impact of the work of the women’s network (including the manifesto) in the lead-up to the election. However, as part of the evaluation at the end of the project, it was reported that activities of the region’s highly influential secret societies – many of whom conducted intimidation against female candidates –  had been suspended. This created a space for free movement of female candidates.  

An apparent improved environment for women candidates was echoed by other contributors to the evaluation. Analysis of survey data shows that almost all the respondents confirmed that women were given the space to participate in politics.

In comparison with the control group, survey data shows that 96.5% of respondents in the project areas compared to 86.1% in the control group confirmed that women were granted space to practice politics.

In terms of the number of women candidates being put forward by the main political parties for the council, this is a mixed picture.

Sierra Leone election candidates 2018

As per the above, both in Kailahun and Kono, across all the political parties, the representation of women was not at the 30% demanded through the Women’s Manifesto. In Kono, there has been a more positive story. Of the 85 female candidates, 54 were put forward by political parties.

Training and support

The other barometer of the impact of the work is of course how many women were elected. The project provided training to over 5,000 women in leadership and advocacy from across the two women’s networks. But it also identified women who showed particular promise in leadership skills and provided support to help them stand for election.

When it comes to the number of women elected as councillors, on the face of it, this does not seem like a positive story. In Kailahun, the number reduced from 12 to six, and in Kono, this went down from 10 to nine.

Sierra Leone successful councillors elected

Conversations conducted with those close to political process as part of the evaluation, suggested that incumbent female councillors had lost the backing of their parties and were not put forward as official candidates for the March 2018 elections. It was also suggested that some of these women had previously been groomed and trained to be leaders for the previous election campaign.

The financial cost of election campaigns

Another issue is that women tend to have less resources to fund their election campaigns and bring less personal resources with them when elected than men. Income-generating activities were added by the women’s networks to facilitate women running for election.

It’s also useful however to go below the surface of the numbers portrayed in the elections. An insight expressed in the Women’s Manifesto is that traditionally, even where women have been represented in local government, the reality is that they are often marginalised from decision-making. In spite of women sitting on chairing committees, the key decisions are made by male civil servants who are supervised by the chairman.

Helping women participate in decision making

It’s also suggested that at the ward district level, where women do represent half of the committee members, high levels of illiteracy of the women mean that they ‘hardly contribute to discussion and decision-making’ – a culture where women are not encouraged to speak would also be a contributing factor.

The Power to Women project took steps to start to remedy this deep-rooted problem. A workshop was organised at council level to inspire women councillors to take up advance learning courses.

In Koidu City Council, the Mayor said he has encouraged female leadership of committees, which has since become a reality with women leading committees in areas such as social welfare and education. He has also seen more and more women taking what he describes as the ‘bold step’ of enrolling for courses in literacy, leadership and advocacy.

Politcal breakthrough

Perhaps the most pertinent evidence of culture beginning to shift was in the national elections, where the project supported the election of three female MPs. Rebecca Yei Kamara, who was supported by the Power to Women project, made history by becoming Kono district’s first ever female member of parliament.

In Kailahun district, Emilia Loloh Tongi became the district's first female MP who is unaffiliated with any of the major parties. This victory is especially significant given the aforementioned obstacles that women with political aspirations face in Sierra Leone. To succeed as an independent candidate, without the support of a political party, speaks volumes of the progress which the project has enabled.

The third major success on the national stage was Bernadette Songa, who was elected as the first MP in her constituency in Kailahun.

You can read the full story of all three of these women in this blog.

Rebecca Yei Kamara was one of those who benefited from the project, winning almost half the vote share (11,222 out of 22,781) to make history, becoming the first woman to represent her constituency in the national parliament.
Rebecca Yei Kamara
James Hutchinson
Speaking out on behalf of victims of gender-based violence

Stopping gender-based violence has been central to the purpose of the Power to Women project. As we have seen, this has been addressed by equipping women to speak on behalf of others to the various levels of government and indeed to do so from positions within government themselves.

But the project has also equipped women to address the challenge of GBV in other ways, notably by ensuring the necessary steps are in place to guarantee justice for victims.

Firstly, this involved raising awareness of the extent of gender-based violence across the two districts, through the publishing of position paper, outlining the problems faced by victims of GBV. It specifically highlighted the absence of a dedicated magistrate in Kailahun district. Women’s groups were also involved in peaceful protests, reinforcing the demands from the position paper, coinciding with 16 days of activism.

The effect of these actions was that the district council in Kailahun agreed to establish a permanent magistrate’s court. Previously, GBV cases were most often referred to the neighbouring district or to a temporary ‘roaming magistrate’, which would invariably not have enough time to preside over cases. This would compound the predicament of victims of GBV, putting more barriers in place for them to seek justice.

According to women who contributed to the evaluation, since the magistrate has been established, judgements are made faster than before and the punishments have generated awareness amongst communities, acting as a deterrent to potential perpetrators.

Another success from the women’s groups was bringing on board paramount chiefs as key allies in the fight against gender-based violence. Paramount chiefs are often the most influential local authority figures and often preside of local legal matters. According to community women interviewed, because of the lack of close monitoring in the past, a lot of cases were compromised at village level. But following a monitoring exercise initiated a by women’s groups, local chiefs are making early referrals of reported cases to the magistrate court for legal actions and subsequent judgement. In one of the chiefdoms in Kono District, a female respondent said a Section Chief has been attending court sessions to either follow up cases or serve as witness. According to the discussion participants, having section chiefs to witness or monitor a case in court would have been seen as impossible previously.

But what led to this apparent break-through of Paramount Chiefs actively advocating for victims of GBV? Again, according to the evaluation, the establishment of a group of Paramount Chiefs’ wives, a strategy employed by  the women’s groups as a critical step in achieving this. The wives’ group helped to sensitise their influential husbands on the topic of GBV, raising awareness and prompting them to action.

Although official data on the instances of GBV was not available, representatives from the Family Support Units (the dedicated unit of the police to deal with GBV) across the two districts, who contributed to the evaluation, observed a reduction in cases which they attribute to the advocacy from Paramount Chiefs.

This was complemented by an insight from a civil servant from Koidu City, who said that (although the cases of GBV may be reducing at the community level) an increasing number of referrals have been made to the regional magistrate.

This was echoed by feedback obtained from the Court Clerk which suggested that the court struggled over the years to get complaints from communities to aid a conviction.

However, feedback obtained from the Family Service Unit suggested that in a minority of GBV cases, there was a lack of cooperation from families of survivors to pursue court action. When an incident of sexual violence or rape for example was initially reported and subsequently charged in court, evidence from the parents of victims or survivors is required to facilitate the judgement. Some parents and family members could not cooperate with policy investigation and as a result, some of the survivors of GBV were denied justice.

Finally, the women’s groups also became source of information to support court charges. In Koidu City, the Court Clerk said when the women came to advocate on matters of concern, the court looked into their issues in light of the law and the disadvantages women face. For example, physical assault, economic abuse, and neglecting responsibilities of pregnant teenagers are some of the common cases reported.

Tackling the root causes of a broken culture

As well a helping to ensure that the reactive response to instances of GBV is improved, the project has also enabled women to more proactively transform the culture which perpetuates gender-based violence.

It has been done through activism such as participation in peaceful protests in the respective districts, but also through other means.

Conversations around gender equality were encouraged through radio broadcasts. Every Tuesday and Wednesday in Kailahun, the local partner NMJD facilitated radio programmes where police officers of the two divisions (Tankoro and Motema) presented an educational programme, raising awareness of gender-based violence and the three ‘gender bills’ which were passed in Sierra Leone in 2007 (including one dedicated to domestic violence)

The other radio show which was initiated by the Power to Women project was ‘Women on the Move’. This is a lively, phone-in show, hosted by members of the women’s groups, which discusses a different contemporary topic relating to gender equality each week.

You can hear an excerpt from ‘Women on the Move’ in this short podcast. recorded at the end of 2017.

Working with schools

Another key focus of the project was the establishment of school clubs – a space where pupils can discuss, among other topics, gender-based violence and ways of combatting and reporting it.  

In total, 50 clubs were started across the two districts (20 in Kono and 30 in Kailahun), reaching over 10,000 girls in secondary schools. While Kailahun school clubs were exclusively for girls, Kono school clubs where composed of a small proportion of boys.

Among other activities, the club members participated in short dramatisations, including role-plays. The focus of the content from the sessions was taken from a manual on gender-based violence produced by Concern Worldwide. The clubs also raised awareness of other topics such as forced early marriage.

Sixteen-year-old Mariama Barry’s involvement in one of these clubs enabled her to take action when she was forced into early marriage by her parents. You can read her full story here.

Mariama Barry sharing experiences at a school club in Kono District

‘Some have battled with whether to accept the marriage and obey their parents or continue with their education and do what the parents and some community people considered disobedience. There are many other girls of my age who face similar or worse situations than what I experienced.’

Mariama is pictured sharing her experiences of forced, early marriage with students from her school.

Evaluation of the school clubs

As part of the project evaluation, girls from the school clubs and their teachers were spoken to separately to glean their experiences of the clubs.

The feedback from the school club members was that awareness had improved. In addition, respondents from the girls’ group also said that some of their friends who were not part of the school club benefited from the messages that they had learned in the clubs. Additionally, members of the school girls’ club in Kono went the extra mile to replicate key messages through their assembly talks and school-to-school campaign.

The positive impact of the groups was expressed through interviews with a number of girls as part of the evaluation. A girl from a school in Kailahun District said, they have become ‘aware and smarter in their interactions so they no longer allow boys to abuse them’. Another girl from Kono also expressed that some of the boys and teachers from her school, (especially in light of seeing the police dealing more with perpetrators of gender-based violence) have also contributed in their own way to pass on the massage to other men and boys.

Members of the women’s network also supported the school groups and school management committees were also trained on the issues, so they could carry out regular monitoring visits to the schools.

Despite the positive impact from the school groups, the evaluation pointed to some negative aspects, mainly in relation to the way that boys in the schools reacted to girls’ participation in the groups. This included some confrontations with boys each time the school clubs were held. According to interviews with some of the girls, it was suggested that the club activities resulted in girls becoming more resistant to sexual relationships with boys. Challenging power inequalities can often result in resistance from those holding the power.

The issues experienced by girls are being taken very seriously. Christian Aid is working with schools, through our partners to put in place ways of safely reporting any instances of intimidation.

Evaluating success

Like with any intervention, it's not a straightforward task to make conclusions about the impact of a project. Whether or not the Power to Women project has succeeded, to change a culture around women's inclusion within government and society as a whole, can only be properly assessed in the years to come.

However, there are certainly signs that the work of the women's network has started to show early signs of culture-change. 

In addition to the examples referenced in this report, there is also the results of the survey conducted with women involved in the networks, compared to those who weren't. When asked if they had seen evidence of the following changes, there was a clear difference between the two groups.

Survey results from project beneficiaries

Although the results from the council elections proved disappointing, at least in Kailahun, the successes of Rebecca Yei Kamara, Emelia Lolloh Tongi and Bernadette Wuyatta Songa, succeeding where women haven't succeeded before, can also be seen as a sign that the environment is beginning to shift.

There is a still a lot of work to do. Even earlier this year, there was a stark reminder, as reported by the BBC, that women and girls face an ongoing struggle in the face of intimidation and violence.

But, Power to Women, along with other ventures across the country, is showing signs that there is hope for a change of culture, which we look forward to seeing develop in the years to come.

Thank you to all ITL supporters for making Power to Women possible.