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Sierra Leone's Parliament Doubles Female Lawmakers

People wait to cast their votes for the national election at a polling station in Freetown, Sierra Leone, June 24, 2023.

PORT LOKO, SIERRA LEONE — Sierra Leone's new parliament will have the largest female representation in the country's history, with 41 women lawmakers, more than double that of the last election. Activists say that number could have been higher had a new law that reserves 30% of leadership roles for women been followed correctly.

Rugiatu Neneh Turay entered politics in 2007, mainly to advocate against female genital mutilation. After one term on a local council, she says, her political party refused to give her another seat on three different occasions.

In one election for two council seats, she says, she won the second-highest number of votes, but her party put a man in the seat after the election.

"I have always made the votes, but the leadership doesn't think I fit into the criteria they want. I am looked at like somebody who cannot be bent, somebody they consider to say, 'She will not just accept things, you know,'" Turay told VOA.

Female activists in Sierra Leone said that kind of manipulation is keeping the number of women in office down, even after President Julius Maada Bio in January signed the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, or GEWE, which requires that women hold 30% of all publicly elected seats and government leadership roles.

New Sierra Leone Bill Doubles Number of Female Lawmakers
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Before the most recent elections, Sierra Leone’s parliament had just 12% female representation, well below the global average of 26.4%, as tracked by Inter-Parliamentary Union's women in parliament index.

In the government's cabinet, only four of 32 cabinet positions were held by women, also far below the global average.

GEWE aimed to change that.

Marcella Samba-Sesay, executive director of Campaign for Good Governance in Sierra Leone, said the law stemmed from Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002.

"This was born out of the fact that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report after the war noted that whole groups were excluded from mainstream politics and did not know how decisions were made. And part of those groups were marginalized entities such as women and young people," Samba-Sesay said.

Since the implementation of GEWE this year, female lawmakers were voted into 41 of 135 parliamentary seats, more than double the number in the last parliament. Advocates have applauded the success of the bill so far but say it is being applied unevenly.

Under Sierra Leone’s election system, voters cast ballots for a party, not an individual. Parties then fill the seats they’ve won from a ranked list of party members.

Nicky Spencer-Coker, a lawyer and women's activist, says many parties placed women in lower rankings, making them less likely to win seats.

"Future advocacy should involve more work directly with the political parties to ensure that they are placing women in higher up on these lists and that they are also placing them in safe seats, not in a seat that perhaps they are going to end up losing," Spencer-Coker said.

Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Gender told VOA in an interview that it will work to correct all the lapses in following the law and, together with the new female lawmakers, will push for more protection for female politicians.

If the law had been followed properly, activists say, there would be even more women in parliament. They also have concerns over parliament’s leadership, as only 1 of the 14 parliamentary chiefs is female.