‘We have the energy’: Historic political wins for women in Sierra Leone hampered by election disputes

A rush of women candidates supported by new electoral laws face continuous challenges in their bid to hold office

Marion Kamara stepped out of the black gates of her compound, high on a hill in the Devil Hole area southwest of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

With friends and supporters behind her, she carefully made her way down the rocky and muddy slope towards the secondary school she used to work in.

Kamara had made this journey many times before, but now she was a candidate for parliament. In her white skirt and matching peplum-style top dotted with sequins, along with bright red glasses and lipstick, she was immediately noticeable. Neighbours and wellwishers greeted her as she passed. Some asked for photographs.

“Good morning Marion,” a neighbour called out.


“Aw di bodi?” Kamara responded in Krio.

“Di bodi fine,” replied the woman.

It was 11.30am. Voting had officially been open for more than four hours, though many polling stations, particularly in Kamara’s district, opened late. Kamara, like other candidates, was allowed to skip the queue.

The former English teacher and secondary school principal was running for public office for the first time – one of a rush of women candidates supported by a new electoral law in Sierra Leone, which requires one-third of political candidates to be women. She was on the ticket for the All People’s Congress (APC) opposition party.

“By God’s grace, by Monday, I will be announced as a member of parliament for this part of the country,” Kamara said.

What a man does, a woman does better. We have the energy

“I have been campaigning for the past five years. It involves a lot. It involves my entire body. It involves members of the constituency, here and beyond, and it also involves finances. It involves prayers, because you have to put God first in everything you are doing. It also involves being closer to the people.”

Kamara was running in the June 24th election amid a cost-of-living crisis. Though resource rich, Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries, with a GDP per capita of €440 in 2021, according to the World Bank.

In the area she was campaigning in, Kamara said residents “have a lot, a lot of problems”. Many of the locals are stone or sand miners, meaning they do “hard labour work”, she said. “We don’t have factories, we don’t have public places for youths, women.”

Kamara said her first priority as an MP would be to secure increased access to electricity. “As I am talking to you, the entire constituency is without electricity,” she explained, and supporters standing around her shouted in confirmation. Most areas also have no government schools, she said, and there was no big market area where people could do business.

Sudie Austina Sellu, the women’s empowerment programme officer for Trócaire, said the Irish charity had been supporting women political candidates with training and advice on issues including campaign planning and financing, as well as building political networks.

Trócaire provides help “before, during and after” the elections, she said. It also developed a training manual, and Sellu spent election day travelling around different polling stations to check whether women candidates were facing any problems.

She was hopeful that the election would bring an increase in the number of women parliamentarians, but acknowledged there was no guarantee that the percentage of women running would be the same as those elected. “Getting the 30 per cent, I’m not quite sure.”

They think you’re a prostitute, they think you’re having relationships with the stakeholders

Before the vote, 19 per cent of local politicians were women, dropping to 13 per cent at national level, according to Trócaire.

While welcoming the new quota, women candidates who spoke to The Irish Times expressed concern it was misinterpreted. The latest election was the first with a district block proportional representation system of voting. Because voters were voting for parties, and not individual candidates, the party decides what order of preference candidates will win seats in. Women highlighted that this meant each woman candidate was usually being ranked behind two male candidates.

A preliminary report by the EU election observers’ mission called the gender quota for candidates “a positive development”, saying women made up 32 per cent of candidates for the parliamentary elections. However, “political parties attempted to circumvent the gender quota requirement”, and only one woman had headed a list of candidates nationwide.

“It underscores the lack of political will to assign women electable positions and indicates that, despite legislative progress, women do not fully enjoy equal participation in political life,” the report said. It also noted that the one woman – of 13 candidates – running for president, had “not a single prime-time news item” devoted to her, “and women contesting other races were also barely visible in the national media”.

In Makeni, Marion Sesay ran as an MP for the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Her background is in business, selling building materials.

“What a man does, a woman does better. We have the energy,” Sesay said, while crediting the new law as the reason she had been able to participate in the election. “I want to empower women, I want to empower the youths.”

Sesay said women in power were better than men at maintaining peace. “We don’t want violence, we want to minimise the violence in politics, so it’s important that women are in the front lines of the political arena. We are always preaching peace.”

Sesay had been working on her campaign for the last four years, she held focus groups and talked to attendees about her plans.

For her, as for all the women candidates who spoke to The Irish Times, obtaining finance was a particular challenge. “After the Covid [pandemic], things are hard… A hungry man is an angry man,” she said. “You [need to] cook for them, give them water so you have their attention.” There were other costs related to transport and printing posters.

Aminata Sarah Conteh, an incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) councillor for Bombali district, said she continued to practice as a community health nurse during her last term, meaning she was deeply connected with the challenges of her area.

Her focus was on “jobs, we have plenty of youths that engage in drug abuse because of [a] lack of jobs”.

“We need pure drinking water, public toilets, recreational centres to encourage youths, and grants for women doing petty trading and training on managing businesses,” Conteh said. “Girl child education for women to go to school.”

“It’s difficult as a woman to become a politician,” she added. “You face a lot of challenges with the men.” She said that people she met while campaigning could be dismissive or cruel. “They think you’re a prostitute, they think you’re having relationships with the stakeholders.”

Women in Sierra Leonean society were also expected to hand any money they earned over to men, Conteh said. She saw better resourced male candidates bribing voters. “They give money to the people and give them fake promises. Most of the community people are poor.”

More than a fortnight after election day, on Monday, Conteh had still not heard if she retained her seat. It took a week for both Sesay and Kamara to find out that they failed to win seats, though Kamara disputes the results. She says the tally of results form signed by both parties, and observers, does not match up with the final announced results of the election, which saw equal numbers of ruling party and opposition candidates elected in her area.

Sierra Leone’s electoral commission did not respond to a request for comment, but its lack of transparency has been criticised by observers, including the EU mission, which called for more data to be made public and said there had been “statistical inconsistencies”.

Diplomats from western countries are privately calling Sierra Leone’s election “a farce”, but it is unclear what – if anything – will happen as a result of that. In protest, the main opposition party, the APC, have now refused to accept seats at all levels of government.

According to Sierra Leonean civil society organisation the Institute for Governance Reform, which provides data and analysis, a total of 41 – or 30.4 per cent – of directly elected MPs for the 2023 election were women.

Freetown’s internationally lauded mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, was also re-elected to the post. Her APC party has expressed unhappiness with the overall electoral process but, in a statement issued on July 3rd, said it would not challenge the results in court, due to a lack of faith in the independence of Sierra Leone’s judiciary.

Instead, the party said it will refuse to recognise the re-election of SLPP president Julius Maada Bio and will “not participate in any level of governance until this unprecedented daylight electoral toppling of the people’s mandate is amicably and satisfactorily addressed”.

As a result of her party’s stance, Zinabu Timbo is one of 15 women elected as APC MPs who now may not get to serve. The 45-year-old businesswoman, with a background in import, export and property, said by phone she felt “okay” about that. “That is the decision the party want to take,” she said.