World News

Women say under-represented in Sierra Leone polls

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Cousins Hariatu and Salamatu Turay are taking a bold step running for parliament in Sierra Leone, where women candidates are dismissed as prostitutes and wife-beating has only just been made a criminal offence.

Just 64 of the 566 parliamentary candidates and only one of seven vice presidential candidates in Saturday’s polls -- the first since U.N. peacekeepers left after the end of a 1991-2002 civil war -- are women.

Daring to stand as a woman is no mean feat.

“It is hard,” said Hariatu Turay, a 35-year-old who runs her own catering business. “There is a lot of intimidation from the men and they refer to us, the female candidates, as prostitutes. But I keep pressing on. ... Women can help develop the nation.”

The fact she and her cousin are running for the same seat -- one for the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the other for the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) -- throws into relief the absence of women elsewhere in the vote.

Women have long been marginalised in Sierra Leone. Only in June did legal changes win them the right to inherit property, make wife-beating a criminal offence and protect under-18s from forced marriage.

Human rights campaigners say the country has far to go. A clause on female circumcision -- widely practised throughout the country -- was removed from the legislation before it passed.

Women make up 14.5 percent of parliament, including three of 21 cabinet ministers. Just two of Sierra Leone’s 22 ambassadors and two of its 19 magistrates are female.

“We lobbied the three main parties and were very disappointed when none chose a woman running mate,” said Harriett Turay, of women’s rights organisation the 50/50 Group.

The group campaigns for women to make up at least 30 percent of parliament, as recommended by the West African country’s truth and reconciliation commission after a 1991-2002 civil war.

Sierra Leone is the second least developed country in the world, according to U.N. figures, and has the highest rate of maternal mortality.

Linda Samai, a dancehall artist better known as Star Zero to her fans, sings “Girl Pikin Wahala” (local Krio dialect for “Girl Child Trouble”) about sexual harassment at work.

“Men disrespect and use us,” she said. “Some bosses already have beds in their office to take girls and say they will give you a post or a promotion if you let them touch you.”

Samai, glad to have her pick of two female candidates, is going to plump for the APC’s Salamatu Turay.

“We need more women in our government and I trust her,” she said. “We want our rights, to have a chance to be like a man ... even to become president if we like.”