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Sat May 20, 2023, 02:51 PM

'Suffocating intimidation': female politicians in Sierra Leone on sexism and abuse

‘Suffocating intimidation’: female politicians in Sierra Leone on sexism and abuse

As the country gears up for polls in June, women in politics speak out about refusing to be silenced despite the abuse and intimidation they face

Isabel Choat
Mon 1 May 2023 09.18 EDT
First published on Mon 1 May 2023 02.00 EDT

When Femi Claudius Cole decided to form a political party, to address what she saw as Sierra Leone’s slow economic development and poor governance, she knew it would be tough. A former nurse, she had no experience in politics and people told her no one would vote for an unknown. But she could not have predicted quite how gruelling it would be: leaving her spending time in jail and fighting for her reputation. The Unity party, registered by Cole in 2017, failed to win any seats in the 2018 general election. But she persevered, travelling around the country offering medical treatment with a surgeon, giving interviews and building up a social media following. In 2021 she co-founded the Consortium of Progressive Political Parties, an opposition alliance. “People thought that once I lost, I would disappear into thin air – they didn’t know me,” she says.

. . . .

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

When the nationwide “Black Monday” protests, which also involved a strike by businesses, street traders and public transport, went ahead the following day, 54 women were arrested in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, for participating in an illegal gathering (although Cole says they had sought permission to march). Other women were beaten and taken to hospital. The experience shook Cole but strengthened her resolve. “I was thinking ‘should I have discouraged the women from protesting, helped them to silence themselves?’ But I knew the women had a point and the constitution supports protest,” she says. “So I came out way bolder, [thinking] I know the worst you can do to me. I realised I have a responsibility. I cannot now go into self-protection mode – I belong to these people.”

. . . .

Freetown’s mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, waves outside court last October, after she was accused by police of disorderly behaviour and obstructing officers. Photograph: Saidu Bah/AFP/Getty

Cole and Aki-Sawyerr point out the irony of finding themselves targeted with false allegations while MPs debated the gender equality and women’s empowerment bill. “They do a lot of whitewashing. This gender bill is totally at odds with the way women are treated. We can’t be seen, we can’t be heard. The intimidation is suffocating,” says Aki-Sawyerr. In January 2023, the landmark bill became law, stipulating that 30% of candidates for elected positions and 30% of presidential appointees must be women. Currently only 13% of MPs, and 17% of ministers are women. Signing the bill into law, President Julius Maada Bio said: “Women’s economic empowerment and protection are not political rhetoric. Empowering women is essential to the health and social development of families, communities and countries. “Women can reach their full potential when they live safe, fulfilled, productive lives. The future of Sierra Leone is female.”

. . . .
Emilia Lolloh Tongi
. . . .

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.’

. . . .

This year she is standing for the ruling Sierra Leone People’s party, and hoping that the improvements she has helped bring about in her constituency – including building a health centre and a school, bringing solar lights to villages, introducing a microcredit scheme for women, and launching a radio station – will help her win enough votes on 24 June. “For the past 60 years, nothing happened [in this area]; I have modernised it. Parliament should have 90% women – we are not there to get fancy cars,” says Tongi. “Women have been criticised as weak, but now look at us. I have proved anything men can do, women can do it better.”


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