Women’s Political Advancement as the engine for Sierra Leone’s Development

Keynote address delivered by the OSIWA Board Chair, Ayisha Osori, at the official opening of 50/50’s Gender and Women’s Leadership Training Institute (January 25, 2018)


Ayisha Osori, delivering Keynote Address at Official Opening of The 50/50 Group Gender and Women’s Leadership Institute in Freetown

Good morning Your Excellences, ladies and gentlemen. All protocols duly observed with respect.

It is an auspicious event that brings us all together today.

Seventeen years ago, 50/50 was launched with a clear purpose for Sierra Leone: to increase the political participation of women and ensure equal representation of women in decision making at all levels. As part of that journey towards the vision of equal representation that 50/50 has committed to, we are here to celebrate the launch of the Gender and Women’s Leadership Training Institute which will go a long way to continue 50/50’s tradition of educating and raising awareness about the importance of good governance, the responsibility of citizens, especially women who make up a little more than half the population of Sierra Leone, in holding government accountable and the importance of women’s representation in politics and decision making.

So why is it important to have women in politics and decision –making?

The story of how I come to be here – standing here before you will provide some answers.

I grew up middle class with parents who worked in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; my father as an academic and my mother as an administrator. My parents taught me that hard work paid and that this was what society respected.  I learnt that my responsibility was to get a good education, hold down a job which would validate me and build a family. I grew up believing that if I worked hard I could be anything I wanted to be. I had little sense that in the eyes of the public, I was considered limited by virtue of being female. I did not grow up thinking being female was a disadvantage and did not recognise that I was privileged. Another thing I learnt from my parents – not directly but from their actions and discussions was that politics was not for ‘decent people’ who had better things to do with their lives. I took my lessons to heart. But the world in which I lived in, had other lessons for me.

When I was 14 my father died in a car accident that killed him instantly. Through my grief, I read between the lines, the things unsaid and understood that if there was anything to ‘take’ from a man who lived entirely on his monthly salary, my father’s people would have taken it from us. It was much later, as I grew older that I realised that if my mum had not been educated and did not have a job and a career, my life, as I knew it would be over. There would have been no money to pay the school fees of me and my siblings and I might have been sent to live with one relation or the other who would promise to send me to school but instead use me for cheap labour. I would probably use marriage to escape but there is no guarantee that this escape route would work out for my ultimate benefit.

This was not my lot because my grandfather had the foresight to educate my mother and she could keep her young family together. All my time as a student I was not concerned with student politics or political affairs even though when I spent 6 years on a 5 year course because of countless academic and student strikes, I began to realise how much power politics and governance played in my personal life.  All the same, I did not think of myself as part of the solution – I just wanted to get my education and get on with my life.

After my Masters Degree in law at the Harvard Law School, I started work in a law firm in New York and I got married and eventually moved back to Nigeria to settle. Unfortunately, the marriage ended and after a series of events, there was a fierce and long custody battle for the one child from this marriage. That is when, in 2009, at the ripe old age of 37, I realised that my society, my government and public policy in general was not designed for my well-being.  Why do I say so?

First, the decision to take a 6 year old from his mother was not made in the best interest of the child. It was made in aid of patriarchy, maintaining the status quo and keeping women in their place. Second, I was not the first and no one was interested in my story except me – using children, as a weapon against their mothers was an old story. Denying women custody of and access to their children was common. Courts refusing to grant women custody despite what laws, cultural and religious beliefs said was not new and where women got custody of the children, men refusing to pay maintenance allowances to the women was also sadly common. Third, I realised that the big man syndrome which affects our politics also affects access to justice and the development of the domestic laws and judicial precedents to protect women and children was poor. Even though the law was on my side, the judge was too intimidated to make the right decision. To be fair – she probably knew that if she gave a judgement that was not respected, she and the court would loose face and so she kept avoiding making a decision.  Finally, it also made me realise that with all my privilege – a good education, financial independence, I was still at the mercy of a society not designed to cater for the lives and aspirations of women. The experience made me aware for the first time how hard the lives of women were. I thought, if I am going through this, how are the majority of women who are uneducated, economically disadvantaged and unaware of their rights coping?

That was the turning point for me because it dawned on me as I struggled through the judicial system that ‘there are not enough women involved in planning and executing government and public services’. If there were…I was sure that the structural systems and processes I was facing would be different. A woman would know what women and children face and would design things to be better, easier, fairer, and more logical.

So how representative is the world to women and their children when it comes to governance and influencing politics and policy? I add the two together because for many women – our children are our lives. We make the majority of decisions with them in mind – we want the world to be better because of the future, which we cradle in our arms daily.

The global view of women’s political representation

Gender balance in political participation and decision-making is the internationally agreed target set in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the old Millennium Development Goals as well as the current Sustainable Development Goals recognise that working towards more women in decision making positions is important. The global standard used to assess how well we are doing with this is the number of women involved in law making within national law making institutions.

As of June 2017, only 2 countries in the entire world have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses: Rwanda with 61.3 per cent and Bolivia with 53.1 per cent. The good news is that more countries have reached 30 per cent or more. Across the regions, the Nordic countries are leading with 41.7 per cent representation of women in parliament. Next comes the Americas with 28.1 per cent (notice the huge gap between first and second position), then Europe with 25.3 per cent; sub-Saharan Africa, with 23.6 per cent; Asia, 19.4 per cent; while Arab States and the Pacific tie for last place with 17.4 per cent. It is also good news that Africa is not at the bottom of the list – but we are still a good way from the recommended average of 35 per cent which is considered the minimum number of women required to positively impact on law and decision making in any group.

The African view of women’s political representation

Thanks to Rwanda, Africa is home to the country with the highest number of women’s parliamentary representation with Rwandan women holding over 60 per cent of the country’s legislative seats. In Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa, women hold more than 40 per cent of parliamentary seats, while in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda over 35 per cent of seats are occupied by women. By contrast, Sierra Leone has had up to 12.3 per cent representation in parliament while Nigeria lags at less than 7 per cent.

In assessing the executive, we have had Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first elected female president in Africa in 2005, and then Joyce Banda took over as president in Malawi. There have been nine female prime ministers in Africa since 1993, and since 1975 there have been 12 female vice presidents such as Wandira Kazibwe in Uganda. There are female speakers of the house in one fifth of African parliaments, which is higher than the world average of 14 per cent. Women are taking over key ministerial positions in defence, finance and foreign affairs, which is a break from the past when women primarily held ministerial positions in the so-called ‘softer’ ministries of education, community development, sports and youth.

Women are similarly visible in regional bodies, holding 50 per cent of the African Union parliamentary seats and we have had South Africa’s Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma preside over the African Union Commission. Even at the local level, women make up almost 60 per cent of local government positions in Lesotho and Seychelles, 43 per cent of the members of local councils or municipal assemblies in Namibia, and over one-third of local government seats in Mauritania, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda. More women than men vote in countries like Botswana, Cape Verde, Lesotho, South Africa and Senegal, although the average rates across the continent indicates that men are voting more than women by at least 5 per cent according to Afrobarometer.

These patterns are evident in the judiciary as well with the advancement of female judges at all levels within African countries. Sierra Leone and Nigeria have had women lead their respective Supreme Courts with as of 2005, Sierra Leone already crossed the 30% minimum threshold with female judges.  Africa’s female judges are even making it into the international arena with Fatou Bensouda from Gambia holding the post of chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Court and all but one of the current five African judges on the ICC are women.

The state of Sierra Leone today

The 6 million people of Sierra Leone have survived many things including a terrible civil war, the severe break out of Ebola in 2014 and the ravaging effects of climate change but are still standing strong. The country has made gains in the democratic and development processes since 2002 as evidenced by the peaceful transition from one democratically elected government to another.  However, as one of the least developed low-income countries where at least 70% of the rural population live in poverty, there is a lot more work to be done.  Women and girls feel the impact of this poverty disproportionately and there are many barriers to women’s full integration into the decision-making sphere at the household, community and national levels. This impacts on the lives of all the children being raised and cared for by women.

The key to improving the lives of all Sierra Leoneans and fast tracking sustainable development lies in improving the lives of women and their children and the key to improving the lives of women and their children is ensuring that governance and public policy reflect the lives of women and children and the key to ensuring that governance and public policy reflect the lives of women and children lies in increasing the representation of women in government and that is what 50-50 is about and what all Sierra Leoneans should be about.

Identifying the opportunities for increasing the representation of women

Back to my story. After I realised that I should participate more actively in politics if I want governance to improve and reflect my experiences and aspirations, I left a well paying private sector job in a multinational company and joined a non profit organisation called the Nigerian Women Trust Fund which was set up to do the same thing 50-50 is trying to do: get more women into decision making through the political process.

After two and a half years of managing the Fund, I decided to contest the primaries for the 2015 general election for a seat representing my constituency in the lower house of Nigeria’s National Assembly, the House of Representatives. I did this for many reasons including that I wanted to move beyond the theoretical and academic to the practical. I had read a lot, I had researched a lot and I had spent a lot of time with female and male politicians, working to see how we could get more women elected and appointed and there was no sign that we were making progress. Besides, how authentic was I being advising women to be more politically active when I had not tried myself?

I did not win the primaries but I learned so much about the political process, particularly at the party level that I had to share my experience with the world. I wrote a book – Love Does Not Win Elections – and it is from the lessons distilled in that book that I will conclude this address.

The first lesson I learned was we, the women are not in the parties. If we are not in the parties, we cannot be in the leadership of the parties and we cannot influence the direction of the party.  We are part of the process when they need a crowd of people to dance and clap but not many of us are card carrying members who can vie for internal positions, who can become delegates during the primaries and who can become candidates during elections. We must join the parties in large numbers and become more organised and deliberate about how we insert ourselves into the leadership of the parties. There are roles for women in the rural areas and roles for women in the urban areas and our experiences with social services: education, health, justice etc. mean that we have a lot in common.  Let’s work on the messaging that will encourage more women to come out to vote and let’s document our wins so the people know the benefits that are attributable to the better governance championed by women.

The second lesson I learnt is that many of our political parties are not set up as proper organisations and they are undemocratic. What do I mean? In Nigeria – no party can tell you, verifiably who their members are. They rarely are interested in recruiting new members, they have no ideology e.g. a party that would say – we believe in 50-50 as a way of telling the people what they will do when in office and because they are not proper organisations, they struggle with funding. Proper parties, have members who will believe in the ideology of the party  – the ‘why’ of the party and fund that party by paying membership dues and buying party items. In Nigeria, it is the big men and women of the party that fund the party and because they fund the party, they dictate who becomes a candidate. The problem for women is that rarely are these preferred candidates women. So whether a woman is loved by her people, whether she is driven by love for her people, if the owners of the parties do not want her, then she will never win the primaries. Evidence shows that in many countries, the primaries are the main obstacle to women’s political representation. If we fix the parties, we will begin to see more women emerging from the primaries process. In Nigeria, less than 10 per cent of the candidates during elections are women – how then can we emerge as 35 per cent of the elected officials?

Third, the primary process is typically rigged. As such, by the day of elections, 80% of the battle for decent leadership has been lost to the electorate. In Nigeria, the delegates (who are often unknown to candidates and sometimes kidnapped and hidden away from aspirants until the day of the primaries) are paid for their votes. Sometimes their votes are not secret – they have to show it to the gatekeepers as they place their ballots into the box. This way, those who control the party, control those who emerge as candidates. Again, women typically lose. The solution is that we need more women and girls, more young people joining the parties and becoming members who join with a vision to do things differently. If we continue to leave politics for ‘them’, then we will not see any meaningful improvement. Instead we need to understand as former US President Dwight Eisenhower, advises, that ‘politics should be the part time profession of every citizen’.  In my case, I had delegates that did not know how to write. This is a clue that those who are educated and aware are not joining the parties in enough numbers to influence the quality of delegates that go on to determine the candidates from the party.

Fourth, politics is an industry. The people in the industry have strong ties that go back for years and their children are part of it. This means sometimes even when they know that a candidate is better, these members of the parties cannot vote sensibly because their land will be revoked or their children will lose their jobs. The lesson is – let us start early. It is hard to ‘enter’ politics quickly. We must make the investment in being part of the parties, being part of the party leadership and being part of the primaries in a way that will reflect our goals and our vision. We must socialise our children from now, from today, from as early as fourteen to know why their participation is critical to the future of their country and implant the right attitudes of service, excellence and hard work to ensure that the future generations do not stay away from their responsibilities. Go to the website for the UK Labour party – they have provisional membership for people who are not yet old enough to vote. This is what women need to start doing – grow the membership of the parties with our children and indoctrinate them with the vision for a better future.

The fifth lesson was that money is crucial to running for office. I did not appreciate this fact until I contested. When I worked with women as CEO of the Fund, when the politicians would complain that their biggest obstacle was funding, I would ask foolishly: ‘so if there is no money will you not run?’ The women were too polite. Yes – if you have no money you will not be able to mount a serious contest. The party nomination forms cost money. And even when the parties waive fees for women, there is still the cost of engagements with your party members, party leaders and delegates. It is our culture to serve food and drinks every time you call people together. Some expect transport money home. I know one candidate who called party leaders in one of his 22 wards to speak to them about his aspiration. It was the last meeting he called that people attended. He did not give them transport money home and the next time he called a meeting, people refused to attend. We need to have serious fund raising strategies and one thing that I know works – because it worked for me, is that having a brand, standing for a value that people recognise is a way to attract funding. When people know what you stand for, they will support you. The catch is that you must start early, make yourself known with words and deeds and then when you say you want to contest; you will be able to raise money from those who know your track record. However, if people don’t know you, they will feel unable to trust you and will not contribute to your election.

Sixth – there are opportunities with our laws and frameworks to speed up the increased representation of women in government and policy implementation. We can change our constitutions to allow for affirmative action – which over 60 countries in the world have right now and I know Sierra Leone, like Nigeria have been trying to get this passed with no success. We can also change our electoral system from first past the post to proportional representation which provides a fairer reflection of what the voters want. So where are the women’s voices on these issues? In a country where women are the majority are enough of them aware of what is at stake? Are they supportive of these measures? Do they understand the value this would bring to their lives? This is an opportunity for the men and women who know why it is important to have more women in government to lead the advocacy and awareness building.

Seventh – too many of us are unaware of our political history and those of us who know a bit about it are rightly scared because of how vicious and violent our politics has been. We would also know as we are beginning to discover in Nigeria that our parties all operate the same – to exploit the political system. We also know that across Africa, those who want to keep power play on our different ethnicities. However things are improving but, if we do not know our political history, we will also not know that in many of our countries we are repeating the same mistakes over and over again. We must being to interrogate the ‘why’ of our politics and link it directly to our lives. Women must know that the politics being played today is not the politics of service, it is the politics of selfishness and if they want to join in the selfishness, the doors will not be open but if they want to transform politics into service, then they have a better chance. Women should lead in this area – curate and document the stories, share it with the young ones and let’s start grooming the future generation to understand their history and appreciate their responsibilities.

Sierra Leone is going to the polls in a few weeks and it is unlikely that any of the things I have shared will change the outcome. But that is another lesson I learnt – that there will be no short cuts and we have to take the long term view but map out our strategy carefully – what are the immediate things we need to do and how we will keep building on the milestones until we can achieve our vision for a more inclusive and more responsible government which is invested in planning for a better future.  The words of a daughter of Sierra Leone, Aminatta Forna in her book, The Devil that Danced on the water, ring in my mind as I think of the politics of Nigeria and the politics of Sierra Leone; ‘All that bound the men ruling our country together was a fondness for power and an eye for opportunity’.  There are good people out there who want our politics to be better and who want better for our country, women, led by 50/50 should find these people – men and women and bring them together for the benefit of the people of Sierra Leone – we deserve better and we can do better.

I wish 50/50 all the best as they embark on this adventure and as we all prepare for the general elections in March, my number one wish is that the real winners of the election will be the people of Sierra Leone.

Thank you.

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