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When Femi Claudius Cole determined to type a political occasion, to deal with what she noticed as Sierra Leone’s sluggish financial growth and poor governance, she knew it could be powerful. A former nurse, she had no expertise in politics and folks informed her nobody would vote for an unknown. However she couldn’t have predicted fairly how gruelling it could be: leaving her spending time in jail and preventing for her status.

The Unity occasion, registered by Cole in 2017, didn’t win any seats within the 2018 common election. However she persevered, travelling across the nation providing medical therapy with a surgeon, giving interviews and build up a social media following. In 2021 she co-founded the Consortium of Progressive Political Events, an opposition alliance. “Folks thought that when I misplaced, I’d disappear into skinny air – they didn’t know me,” she says.

In July 2022, when ladies organising a rally to protest on the hovering value of residing requested for her backing, she agreed, permitting them to make placards in her workplace. They deliberate to decorate in black and maintain a prayer service. However the day earlier than the rally, armed police surrounded Cole’s home.

“There have been so a lot of them they blocked the entire avenue,” she says. The police informed her she was being “invited” to reply questions on the Felony Investigations Division.

Cole went to the police along with her lawyer, was accused of inciting the protests and detained for 4 nights. They confiscated her passport, which has but to be returned.

A screengrab of a live feed of protests that was broadcast on Facebook, showing women holding up signs to the camera
Footage of final July’s Black Monday protest in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, when 54 protesters had been arrested. {Photograph}: Fb Reside

When the nationwide “Black Monday” protests, which additionally concerned a strike by companies, avenue merchants and public transport, went forward the next day, 54 ladies had been arrested in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, for collaborating in an unlawful gathering (though Cole says they’d sought permission to march). Different ladies had been overwhelmed and brought to hospital.

The expertise shook Cole however strengthened her resolve. “I used to be considering ‘ought to I’ve discouraged the ladies from protesting, helped them to silence themselves?’ However I knew the ladies had a degree and the structure helps protest,” she says.

“So I got here out manner bolder, [thinking] I do know the worst you are able to do to me. I realised I’ve a accountability. I can not now go into self-protection mode – I belong to those individuals.”

The next month, protests in opposition to financial hardship erupted in Freetown, and this time they turned violent. A whole bunch of individuals took to the streets and at the least 27 died in clashes, together with six cops. As soon as once more, armed police surrounded Cole’s home.

That very same day, throughout town, one other feminine politician was being intimidated by the police presence exterior her dwelling. Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr was Freetown’s mayor and had received accolades for positioning town on the forefront of the battle in opposition to the local weather disaster in Africa. However Aki-Sawyerr’s recognition has additionally earned her enemies. No cost was introduced after she was blamed for the August protests, however in September she was charged with disorderly behaviour and obstructing the police after going to assist one in every of her councillors who had been arrested at Lungi airport. Her case is ongoing.

Freetown’s mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, flanked by two other women, waves outside a courtroom
Freetown’s mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, waves exterior courtroom final October, after she was accused by police of disorderly behaviour and obstructing officers. {Photograph}: Saidu Bah/AFP/Getty

Cole and Aki-Sawyerr level out the irony of discovering themselves focused with false allegations whereas MPs debated the gender equality and girls’s empowerment invoice. “They do a variety of whitewashing. This gender invoice is completely at odds with the best way ladies are handled. We are able to’t be seen, we will’t be heard. The intimidation is suffocating,” says Aki-Sawyerr.

In January 2023, the landmark invoice turned regulation, stipulating that 30% of candidates for elected positions and 30% of presidential appointees have to be ladies. At present solely 13% of MPs, and 17% of ministers are ladies.

Signing the invoice into regulation, President Julius Maada Bio mentioned: “Girls’s financial empowerment and safety usually are not political rhetoric. Empowering ladies is important to the well being and social growth of households, communities and nations.

“Girls can attain their full potential once they stay protected, fulfilled, productive lives. The way forward for Sierra Leone is feminine.”

Campaigners hailed the regulation as a watershed second. In addition to rising political illustration, the regulation prolonged maternity depart, improved ladies’s entry to finance, launched equal pay and stipulated a 30% feminine quota of workers in personal firms with greater than 25 staff.

“That is the primary time Sierra Leone has had such an act and that’s the reason we’re blissful,” says Sahr Kendema, of the Marketing campaign for Good Governance, which had launched the yellow-ribbon marketing campaign in assist of the gender equality invoice.

However Kendema says the regulation’s wording provides the president a get-out trigger in relation to appointing ministers and different key roles corresponding to ambassadors. It says the president “might” appoint ladies to 30% of positions. “We see this as a begin … a working doc. Our subsequent advocacy is to vary the wording of ‘might’ to ‘shall’,” he says.

There are additionally issues that nominees won’t essentially be elected, particularly for the reason that election on 24 June will likely be primarily based on proportional illustration for the primary time. The invoice solely makes it obligatory for political events to appoint a feminine candidate, not to decide on one, says Sudie Sellu, ladies’s empowerment lead for the Irish assist company Trócaire. “We’d like nominations that can find yourself profitable.”

Cash is one other barrier for girls, says Cole. Candidates must pay greater than 3,600 new leones (£128) to get on the poll sheet (annual GDP in 2021 was £380 a head). “How can we, as a comparatively small younger occasion, current a listing of individuals ready to pay [that much]?”

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Portrait of Sierra Leonean politician Catherine Zainab Tarawally
Catherine Zainab Tarawally: ‘They call me the iron lady – if I want something, I fight for it.’

Even if the minimum 30% target is achieved in both elected and appointed positions, women say the country has a long way to go in addressing sexist attitudes, especially towards women in power.

Cole and Aki-Sawyerr have paid a high price for speaking out. The Unity party has been barred from the elections for not following protocol in polls – an allegation that Cole disputes. “I’ve been blacklisted,” she says. “The last time I was at a meeting, the deputy minister of justice looked at me and asked ‘why is she still here?’ They thought they had got rid of me.”

In February the government gave all mayors until 1 March to vacate their offices ahead of June’s elections, two months earlier than usual, a move that Aki-Sawyerr, a member of the main opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC), believes was designed to oust her. “Twenty-one other councils [affected], simply to get me,” she says. “They’re obsessive about eradicating us from the political house.”

Portrait of Sierra Leone MP Emilia Lolloh Tongi
Emilia Lolloh Tongi: ‘I’ve proved something males can do, ladies can do it higher.’

Catherine Zainab Tarawally, an opposition MP from the north, says she is commonly informed to “get again within the kitchen”. “Sierra Leone is a patriarchal and chauvinistic society. Girls make up 52% of the nation however we’re nonetheless preventing to understand what’s ours.”

Tarawally, advisor to the feminine caucus and chair of the gender affairs committee, says she survived her first time period in parliament by giving pretty much as good as she will get.

“They name me the iron woman – if I need one thing, I combat for it,” says the MP, one in every of solely seven ladies amongst 59 APC parliamentarians. Efficiently lobbying for more durable sentencing for severe sexual offenders within the 2019 Sexual Offences Act and the 2020 Cyber Safety and Cyber Crimes Act are amongst her proudest achievements.

One other MP, Emilia Lolloh Tongi, turned the primary girl to face as an impartial within the 2018 election. After working in France, she determined to return dwelling to japanese Sierra Leone, an space missing fundamental infrastructure, together with well being and training amenities.

The story of a lady who died strolling to a clinic whereas in labour, was a horrible illustration of Sierra Leone’s woeful file on maternal deaths – and the second Tongi knew she wished to serve her neighborhood. “It was so upsetting,” she says. “She was discovered mendacity on the highway holding her child’s ft.”

Tongi was warned that politics was “bloody and violent” and through her marketing campaign her home was attacked and she or he was threatened each day by supporters of rival candidates. However when she beat the 2 essential events to win her seat the abuse turned to admiration – particularly after her rousing maiden speech.

“They painting politics as one thing bloody as a result of they don’t need us to be there. I believed politics was terribly troublesome, but it surely has been a terrific discovery.”

This 12 months she is standing for the ruling Sierra Leone Folks’s occasion, and hoping that the enhancements she has helped result in in her constituency – together with constructing a well being centre and a college, bringing photo voltaic lights to villages, introducing a microcredit scheme for girls, and launching a radio station – will assist her win sufficient votes on 24 June.

“For the previous 60 years, nothing occurred [in this area]; I’ve modernised it. Parliament ought to have 90% ladies – we’re not there to get fancy vehicles,” says Tongi. “Girls have been criticised as weak, however now have a look at us. I’ve proved something males can do, ladies can do it higher.”

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