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Fighting gender bias ahead of elections
2/23/2007 4:36 PM

FREETOWN, 23 February 2007 (IRIN) - With general and presidential elections looming in July, women’s rights groups in Sierra Leone are battling what they say is deep seated discrimination for more women to be included on the ballots.

Nematta Eshun-Baiden, founder of the Fifty-Fifty Group of Sierra Leone - a non-governmental advocacy organisation named after the 50-50 gender balance in the population - said her group is "vigorously campaigning" for women to run for and win at least 30 percent of all elected posts in the July general elections.

"Women in this country have been expected by men to be in the kitchen, but we are fighting hard to erase this notion", Eshun-Baiden said.

"For so long there have been major barriers depriving women of playing active role in government... most men do not give credence to women as decision makers".

The July poll will be the first presidential election since United Nations peacekeepers left the country in 2005 and only the second since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2001.

Armed groups raped, abused and enslaved women and girls during the country's war.

In Sierra Leone's first post-war presidential election in May 2002, only one of the eight candidates was a woman.

"We are demanding all men to understand, that Sierra Leone belongs to every one of us and there should be no gender discrimination", Eshun-Baiden said.

In the current parliament, women constitute just 14 percent of 124-member unicameral parliament. Among the government’s 21 cabinet ministers and 10 deputy ministers, women hold three cabinet minister positions and three deputy portfolios.

Real obstacles

Women in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown told IRIN that they see major obstacles to their gender getting a fairer share of seats at the table.

"The men in this country still believe that women are their properties and that they only belong in the house to take care of children,. They don’t understand that the world is changing,” complained Maimuna Kamara, a hotel bar tender.

Cynthia Synder, a sociology student at Njala University, one of Sierra Leone two universities, argued that cultural practices by most indigenous tribes in the country support the belief that men are superior over women.

"The men are holding this cultural belief sacred. Our men dislike women competing with them, doing the same job and they also ascribe to the idea that a highly educated woman is a threat to men because she would be argumentative and not respect them,” Synder said.

Starting at school

Eshun-Baiden said that most families do not send their girls to school.

"Our people believe that a woman cannot be educated more than the men... this is serious barrier we are facing in our struggle for empowerment", she said.

Statistics drawn up the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) put the adult literacy rate in 2004 at 35 percent, with the male rate of literacy standing around 47 percent compared to 24 percent for women.

Changing the gender balance may take time. "Here like any African country, the man is the head of the woman and that cannot be easily thrown away," Hassan Rogers, a petty trader told IRIN.

But John Thomas, a used car dealer, said he thinks it is “about time we give our women the chance in government to see what they are capable of doing”.

“Liberia, our neighbour set the example by electing the first female president. She has appointed women that we have heard they are performing well," he said.

Published in: Fighting gender bias ahead of elections, IRIN News Service,, February 23, 2007 (c) IRIN

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