Around 85% of Sierra Leoneans voted, which reflects the significance of the elections – they were the first of their kind in five years. They also represented an opportunity for women to play more of a role in the leadership of the country, at both a local and national level.
The ITL Power to Women project has enabled this to happen, including the election of Kono’s district’s first ever female MP – made possible through your support.
By forming networks of locally based networks, the project has enabled women in Kono and Kailahun districts in the west of the country, to have a greater influence within their communities. Part of this is advocating on behalf of victims of gender based violence, to ensure that authorities are following up properly in these to achieve justice. But the groups have also identified a number of women with strong leadership potential and given them support to run for election.
One such woman is Rebecca Yei Kamara. Like any woman in the Sierra Leone with aspirations for political leadership, the challenges are significant.
There are practical barriers 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’ which 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.
Compounding these challenges, Rebecca says, had been the lack of networking and mutual support among women running for leadership positions. And conversely, it has been this challenge which the Power to Women project has addressed and provided the momentum for women like Rebecca to succeed.
In 2015 Rebecca was elected as the leader of one of groups within the Kono District Women’s network, before later being elected deputy district chairperson of the network. During this time she used her position to encourage many women to see the need to support one another.
She also worked with men including the traditional leaders to support women and develop rules to protect women from gender-based violence She was provided with a platform to speak out about these issues through the ‘Women on the Move’ radio programme, which the ITL project supported.
A sign of Rebecca’s growing confidence and perhaps tenacity, was the idea to pay ‘courtesy calls’ to authorities – unscheduled visits to mostly male decision-makers to ask for updates on changes to laws and to ‘gently encourage’ opportunities for women to take leadership roles.
Before becoming involved with the Power to Women project, Rebecca was scared to stand for any political position, conscious of numerous disappointments women had faced where they had stood for election in Kono before. But her attitude has changed:
'What has changed in my life is that this project has given me a sense of direction. It has given me the desire not only to remain focused and confident but also enthusiastic about representing women at the political platform.
'The project has also helped me recognise and appreciate that there is power in women and that this can be tapped for women to immensely contribute to the promotion of women’s rights in governance.'
Rebecca, who is married with two children, was formally a social worker, and it’s her passion to see women and girls thrive, and actively contribute to society which has been the driving force for her political career and is central to her vision for her new constituency.
‘My hopes are to see violence against women completely eradicated and to see more women being empowered and supported by the authorities and fellow women to participate in decision-making processes from household to national level’
As reported in the last newsletter, this violence against women is common in everyday life in the country – one in two women aged between 15 and 49 suffer physical or sexual violence from a partner.
Rebecca’s historic success was not the only one which you have made possible. 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 which women with political aspirations face in Sierra Leone. To succeed as an independent candidate, without the support of a politcal party, speaks volumes of the progress which the Power to Women project has enabled.
At the time of writing, the elections in Sierra Leone are continuing, with the stand-off election to decide who will be the country's president currently taking place.
It will take time for the dust to settle, and the overall representation of women in local and national government is yet to be fully confirmed. Early signs are that progress will not be seen immediately. But the victories for Rebecca and Emilia show that ITL's approach is bearing fruit and give hope for change in the coming decades.