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The Yellow Ribbon Campaign is growing in political influence with the women of Sierra Leone
Over the rugged eastern mountains, across the wide coastal plains, and deep in the valleys of Sierra Leone, a sea of yellow is demanding change.
The Yellow Ribbon Campaign is growing in political influence with the women of Sierra Leone uniting and becoming a force for change that can no longer be ignored.
The campaign, which is made up of civil society organisations and women’s empowerment advocates in Sierra Leone with support from Trócaire, is the driving force behind a new government bill aimed at increasing women’s representation in public parliament and local councils.
In Sierra Leone, with a population of almost eight million people, just 19% of local politicians are women, and only 13% at national level. But efforts to increase these figures are rapidly underway.
A new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill, developed by the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, is calling for 30% of parliamentary seats and cabinet positions to be held by women in the West African state. The Bill also aims to improve women’s access to finance, more positions in employment, and to link government spending to improving gender equality.
The Bill would be monumental for the women of Sierra Leone who are routinely discriminated against and at risk of gender-based violence. Sierra Leone is ranked 182nd out of 189 countries on the UN’s 2020 Gender Development Index.
Mariatu Kargbo, Secretary of Port Loko Women’s Network, said that she is supporting the Bill “so that women can be heard in decision-making and contribute to the development of Sierra Leone”.
“I want to work side-by-side with our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons to show them that we can also do it,” Ms Kargbo said.
Susan B Koroma, President of the Bombali District Women’s Farmer Network, echoed this sentiment saying the Bill “would allow women to lead and take charge of our lives and to be elected as a representative to be part of national development.”
With funding from Irish Aid, Trócaire is at the forefront of ensuring the drafting and passing of the Bill empowers women and girls in Sierra Leone.
Ellen Donnelly, Trócaire’s programme manager in Sierra Leone, said that the overseas development agency has been working for a number of years to champion and support female candidates in elections.
“In Trócaire, we have worked tirelessly with our civil society partner organisations to support the Government in Sierra Leone to develop a women’s empowerment policy and to draft the Gender Equality Women’s Empowerment Bill. The Bill has currently passed the first stage in parliament but there are two more stages for it to go through before it is passed.”
“Our ambition is that the Bill is passed this year, as 2023 is an election year in Sierra Leone so we’d really love to be in a position to support female candidates in the next election cycle. Through our local partners, we have also developed a manual which will guide female candidates through the election process,” Ms Donnelly said.
In addition to drafting and supporting the Bill, Trócaire also engages in advocacy and awareness campaigns. This includes running informational jingles on the radio, and travelling throughout Sierra Leone to consult with men and women, especially in rural areas, to hear their feedback and recommendations on the Bill.
“With the help of our local partners, we engaged with rural women to ensure that they can become champions of the Bill and enable them to use their voice and influence to engage with parliamentarians on what the Bill means for them and why their representatives should vote for it. Women living in rural areas have been very keen to engage with the Bill and to demand change for themselves and their local communities,” Ms Donnelly said.
While the Yellow Ribbon Campaign has gained huge success, Ms Donnelly added that the movement often gets asked questions which need to be challenged and addressed as they reproduce harmful gender norms.
“We often get questions from journalists asking whose seats these women are going to take as men have retained these seats for years, and there’s often a fear that women will not be able for these positions. Our feedback is always that every election cycle is a new cycle and there is no such thing as a man’s seat.
Every time you’re elected, you’re only elected for a period of time. We’re not taking away anyone’s seats, but in reality, women represent 52% of people in Sierra Leone, so they deserve to be represented in national and local legislative bodies.
So, it’s actually men who are occupying a space that was never theirs to occupy and they need to take a step back, Ms Donnelly added: “Another common question we get is whether there are enough women who are able to campaign and take up these positions. We’re confident to say that in the last election we trained and supported lots of women who were very capable and the ones who were successful, their constituents are very happy.
We have female MPs who are already role models and show that female MPs do work. It’s very important that these assumptions are challenged and addressed.
This Bill provides the women of Sierra Leone with the opportunity to gain empowerment but also to address the issues that are most affecting women in the country such as high rates of gender based violence, and child marriage rates.”
“We hope over time this law if enacted, will lead to clear change and positive outcomes for women. One thing is for sure, the women of Sierra Leone are a political force that can no longer be ignored.”
Minister for Overseas Aid and Diaspora, Colm Brophy T.D., said:
“When women’s voices are heard, they can influence the direction of their communities and play a full part in the development of their countries. That’s why community radio in Africa is so important. It presents an opportunity for women to voice their concerns and discuss the issues that affect them.
This new radio station will give women in Sierra Leone the chance to discuss, debate and inspire each other to create a more equal society. It will allow women to share their experiences and collectively work towards further strengthening their voices.”