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The Unfinished Revolution: Getting the Balance Right in Sierra Leone's House of Parliament
By Dr. Nemata Majeks-Walker (Founder and First President of The 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone)
Nov 5, 2010, 11:58
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About Twenty-three (23) countries in the world have achieved a critical mass of 30 percent women in national parliaments viz: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Burundi, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Macedonia, Mozambique, Nepal, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Rwanda, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania and Uganda. These countries have been successful because each of them has recognised the importance of equity between women and men in decision-making as reflected in changes in their electoral and parliamentary processes.

As a woman who has dedicated the best years of my life fighting for gender equality and equity, I am convinced that this an opportune time for Mama Salone to join the global movement in support of her womenfolk. All we need is the political will to do so. There are a number of ways through which a country can achieve a critical mass.

It is commonplace that a proportional representation electoral system, combined with a quota system, essential training, financing, socio-political reforms, public engagement with a sense of gender solidarity are the most reliable means to ensure that a country has a higher than average number of women in parliament. A Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system enables a country to achieve the greatest numbers of women in parliament. This system is used in almost all the countries where women occupy at least 30 percent of parliamentary seats.

The most widely used form of proportional representation is the list system. In its simplest form, each party presents its list of candidates to the electorate and receives seats in proportion to its overall share of the national vote. In some countries a minimum share of the votes may be required for a party to earn representation. In the mixed-member PR system, voters elect a certain percentage of the legislature from single-seat winner-takes-all districts while the remaining members are chosen from lists.

Quotas systems are equalising strategies that have been used for elections at all levels: regional, national, local, district, provincial, and municipal. Because women are generally politically disadvantaged, the use of a quota system will enable women vying for national parliaments to overcome obstacles that prevent them from entering politics in the same ways as their male colleagues. This temporary measure that helps women to play the catch-up game has increased women's representation significantly in those countries that apply it. All of these countries have used one or a combination of the following strategies:

Party quotas-- These are voluntary measures or targets adopted by political parties to guarantee that a certain percentage of women are selected as candidates. Political parties in Austria, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Mozambique, Norway, Spain, Sweden and South Africa use this system.

Legal quotas-- This derives from the constitution or legislation and makes it mandatory for political parties to set aside a certain percentage of parliamentary seats for women. Non-compliance can open parties to penalties such as disqualification from elections or withdrawal of government campaign funding. Legal quotas are in force in Argentina, Belgium, Burundi, Costa Rica, France, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

Gender neutral quotas-- parliamentary seats for both sexes. Countries like Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden have introduced this system. Other countries that have reached a sustained critical mass have adopted quota systems, primarily using the twinning or zipping gender-balance quota system - alternating equal numbers of women and men on party electoral lists.

With political will and commitment, any or a combination of any of the above is very feasible for us here in Sierra Leone. Such a move can be the first break into the barriers that prevent women from participating in politics. Research findings by Lesley Abdela, Women's Activist of Shevolution indicates that it is a myth that women's representation in politics is linked to a rich/poor divide.

According to her findings, women in some of the wealthier countries such as Japan, Italy and the United States have a lower share of seats in their legislature than women in thirteen developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This goes to show that though money is important, it is not the major factor preventing women from participating in politics. The most important factor is the creation of spaces, such as a quota system, that will enable women actively engage in politics.

Sierra Leonean women have worked and continue to work diligently for the betterment Mama Salone and it is imperative that their hard work be rewarded by the introduction of a quota system that will ensure that they fully participate in the governing of the country.

Women of Sierra Leone have always been at the forefront in organizing groups that aim at changing the status quo in areas where they believe that women are most adversely affected. Most of the national NGOs or chapters of international NGOs in Sierra Leone were either started by women or are being headed by women. At the height of the decade-long war in the country, women who fled to neighbouring countries as refugees were the first to form groups aimed at helping children and other women.

They founded schools and sought aid for their fellow refugees in order to make life more bearable. It was during this period that the Mano River Union Women's Peace Network (MARWOPNET) consisting of women from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, was founded in Conakry Guinea, where a large number of Sierra Leonean refugee women were.

On returning to Sierra Leone, women became even more involved in efforts to end the war, organizing peace marches, attending peace conferences, in and outside the country, insisting on being included when Peace Accords were being signed and making their presence felt at the Bintumani 1 and 2 Conferences when they insisted that there should be general elections before efforts aimed at restoring peace are intensified.

Sierra Leonean women can also boast of playing a significant role in bringing the war to an end when they risked their lives by marching boldly to the home of the late rebel leader Foday Sankoh, demanding peace and an end to the war.

Women were also very much a part of ensuring that the three gender bills were passed into law in 2007. These Acts are: The Devolution of Estate Act; the Domestic Violence Act and the Customary/Traditional Marriage and Divorce Act. And, of course, women are at the forefront in ensuring that these three Acts are simplified, translated and recorded so that women around the country will know exactly what they are entitled to.

In essence, it has been proven that when women are significantly represented in appreciable numbers in parliament, the perspectives and interests of women in general are more likely to be taken into serious consideration and their concerns given higher priority. For example For example, in South Africa, where more than 30 percent of members in the National Assembly are women, they introduced a gender budget process that studies government expenditures to ensure that adequate funds are allocated for women empowerment and development.

One report highlights the case of Rwanda where women parliamentarians have formed a women's caucus that works together across party lines to review existing laws, eliminate discriminatory legislation, examine proposed laws through a gender lens and liaise with the women's movement. A key legislative achievement was the repealing of laws that prohibited women from inheriting land.

Female deputies in Costa Rica are said to have been successful over eighty percent of the time in getting laws that they submitted to the legislative assembly approved. Conversely, the men only have a forty-eight percent success rate.

Women also play leading roles in the field of public health and in the fight against narcotics and money-laundering.Sierra Leonean women have proven that they are capable and have the temerity to lead and bring about positive change. What we need most urgently is the political will to push for gender equality at all levels. A starting point will be the introduction of a quota system that makes it possible for more women to participate in politics.

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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