By: Lena Thompson
Finally, a Gender Empowerment Bill will soon be debated and hopefully enacted by parliament. This has been a long time coming and a point of victory for women activists and organizations who have championed the fight for equality and equity. Women in Sierra Leone constitute 52% of the population yet have pitiful representation of 16 of the 132 directly elected seats and only 2 paramount chiefs in parliament. The demand for a minimum 30% quota is to ensure that women’s participation in public life increases.
What does politics have to do with it?
As Sierra Leoneans, we are obsessed with politics, whether we participate actively as politicians, party card-carrying members, supporters, activists or mere casual observers and commentators. We understand that politics is important because it sets the tone for a conducive environment that determines our economic and social development; thus, with the political will this bill should be a positive development for our society.
However, beyond the euphoria there are some grey areas of concern and this paper will specifically focus on Part II on reserved seats which needs to be thoroughly interrogated and clarified before the bill becomes law.
What’s in a name? semantics or not
“The Gender Empowerment Bill” frankly assumes men are also disempowered……but how much empowerment do men still need in a system dominated by them? Furthermore, Gender Empowerment also assumes that any tenure of reserved seats should be for both male and female. If the intention of the bill is to impose a minimum 30% quota for women, then let the name be reflective and true to its intention. What we need is a comprehensive Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill, which should cover every aspect of women’s lives and should deal with equity, quota and equality effectively at all levels.
The bill stipulates “that a Committee made up of NEC in consultation with PPRC, political parties, Councils of Paramount Chiefs and any civil society organization interested in elections shall preside over procedures for securing reserve seats.”
Concern- Who selects these seats, how are these seats selected, which seats are selected and when are they to be selected?
The bill is silent on the criteria of selection, what would determine the rotation of seats and when these selections and rotations will occur.
We are not a federal state like the United States where states make up their own electoral procedures, neither are we that politically developed or astute for that system to work here.
Furthermore, its fails to address the composition of these selection committees, especially when there are very few women in decision making positions in NEC, PPRC, political parties and in the Council of Paramount Chiefs.
Term limits – The bill stipulates “A female candidate elected under reserve seat during a public election will be eligible for election for not more than one term in a reserve seat”
Concern: If parliament has no term limit so why put limits on reserved seats? The danger here is that you might have a brilliant and effective female MP in a reserved seat who will only be able do one term whilst a less effective male counterpart who has never even spoken in parliament can stay in perpetuity (so long as he keeps winning) simply because he is a man in an unreserved seat. This is grossly unfair!!!
When a rotational seat becomes a general seat, it is quite possible that a man having eyed the seat will suddenly feel it is ‘his turn.’ Even though the previous female MP is still eligible to run again. We must not forget political parties ultimately select candidates. There are no guarantees that the same woman having held a reserved seat will be re-selected for the same seat when that seat becomes a general seat.
There may be instances when popular MPs are deselected at the behest of their party or because of internal party politics and we may find ourselves in a situation where good women MPs are deselected at the end of their reserved term whilst male counterparts who may be less productive continue in office. It is unfair for reserved seats to have term limits whilst others don’t. We do not want to have two tier MPs. Moreover, the bill is silent or does not give alternatives on parties maintaining women candidates in those seats if they are interested in running.
Furthermore, politics is about building relationships and trust between those who govern and those who are governed. A one term rotational system does not develop the relationship between the MP and her constituency. A one- term MP will lack the incentive to work for her constituents knowing full well her time is limited, additionally it’s a waste of money and resources for a potential parliamentary candidate.
Likewise, for our political parties and their usual reluctance to nominate women candidates, reserved seats offer no incentive for parties to nominate more females for other unreserved seats because they could very easily say their gender quota has been satisfied. This will certainly be disadvantageous to those female MPs in unreserved seats who might be deselected in favour for a male candidate.
In Part I of the bill, that is the Preliminary section, public elections include Paramount Chieftaincy elections. Yet save for the fact that the Council of Paramount chiefs shall be part of the body that deliberates on the procedures for securing reserved seats, the Bill is silent on paramount chieftaincy elections. If it is intended that Paramount chieftaincy elections are one of the public elections contemplated in this then this matter should be addressed. That is even more so because candidates for chieftaincy elections must come from recognised ruling houses and it is unclear how this will be reconciled with the meaning of public elections as prescribes in the Bill. Also how do we to reconcile this with traditional attitudes in those part of the country where it is frowned upon for women to be PCs? Or are they not part of this process?
• Change the name of the bill to The Women’s Empowerment Bill or even The Minimum 30% Quota Bill to reflect the content of the bill.
• The Bill should be explicitly clear on the composition of the Committee presiding over the selection for reserved constituencies.
• The Bill should be explicitly clear on the criteria for the selection of reserved constituencies
• The Bill should be explicitly clear when this reserve seat selection should be done.
• One 5-year term limit for reserve seats is unfair, this should be extended to two 5-year term limit
• If there are term limits for reserve seats then all other seats should be subjected to the same condition and enshrined in the law.
• Provisions should be made in the Bill for the elections of Paramount Chiefs.
• The Bill should make clear that political parties have to be organizationally democratic ensuring that women are mainstreamed within the party structure with a minimum 30% quota for each gender.
• Empowerment is a process and women are disadvantaged in other areas, political participation and women’s employment are the first steps towards achieving empowerment. This bill is too limited and after over 20 years is this all?
Anyway …still baby steps
Finally, quota systems are always controversial, at its best they try to fast track equilibrium in an imbalanced system. However, the process or procedure to achieving equity can be flawed even though the outcome is achieved and the boxes are ticked. Therefore, we have to ensure that these procedures of achieving numbers within our own context does not mitigate against effective representation and thus leaving women even more disadvantaged than before.
“The Gender Empowerment Bill “is a good start but there’s a lot of work to be done before it will benefit women in the way we would all like to see. Women’s demand for equality in politics and public life is long overdue and we only have these opportunities once in a generation so we have to get it right.