"By unanimous votes, the ayes have it," Dr. Abass Bundu, the speaker of the Parliament of Sierra Leone, declared as his gavel hit the large wooden desk. Finally, after 13 months of deliberations, negotiations, and suspense, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Bill, 2021 was passed by parliament on November 15, 2022. Two months later, President Julius Maada Bio signed the bill into law, surrounded by women activists and civil society, including NDI’s Senior Resident Director for Sierra Leone, Mohamed Konneh. The law is an unprecedented ‘win’ for the women of Sierra Leone, representing the single largest increase to women’s political participation in the country’s history.
The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE) is a monumental advancement for gender equality in Sierra Leone, a country ranked 181 out of 191 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index. The law enshrines improvements to women’s access to finance, employment opportunities, equal pay, maternity leave, and–critically–political representation. GEWE establishes a 30 percent quota for women’s participation in government for both appointed positions, including cabinet, ministry, and ambassador roles, and elected positions, such as parliamentary and local council seats. Currently, women represent just 12 percent of parliamentary seats and four of 32 cabinet positions. The GEWE quota will go into effect ahead of Sierra Leone’s upcoming presidential, parliamentary, mayoral, and local council elections on June 23, 2023.
At NDI’s office in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, staff watched the bill’s passage with a mix of awe and pride. For the past three years, NDI staff have worked tirelessly in support of the GEWE bill, with many of their efforts directly contributing to the development and passage of the legislation. Since 2020, the Institute has collaborated with political parties, government agencies, and civil society organizations to identify avenues for increasing women’s political participation and representation. NDI conducted a Win With Women assessment to identify gender gaps and barriers to women’s inclusive political participation in parties. Inter-party meetings were organized between political party leaders to discuss challenges and brainstorm solutions. The meetings culminated in a national inclusion action plan, which serves as a roadmap for addressing and deterring the marginalization of women within political parties. These efforts helped political parties and members of Parliament to see the need for codifying these actions in gender empowerment legislation.
Shortly after the GEWE bill was presented for its first reading in Parliament in October 2021, NDI worked with the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC) to bring together party leaders and the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs in roundtable discussions to discuss the content of the bill and mobilize party leaders to support its passage. NDI and the PPRC also hosted public forums and town hall meetings across Sierra Leone with government officials, party leaders, civil society, media actors, and citizens to ensure the public had the opportunity to understand and contribute to discussions around gender equality. Participants of these forums provided critical feedback on the need for and composition of a monitoring committee to ensure political parties comply with GEWE’s regulations, suggestions that were ultimately included in the final draft of the legislation. Many citizens used the forums to audaciously request that members of Parliament enact the bill, or risk losing their votes in the forthcoming 2023 elections. Further, in January 2023, NDI worked with the National Political Debates Committee to host debates for women politicians to discuss their political party’s policy position on the GEWE bill, serving as a platform for women to speak directly to the public on the need for gender empowerment legislation.
Now that the GEWE Act is a law, and with elections slated for June 2023, NDI is wasting no time mobilizing women aspirants and political parties to effectively carry out its provisions. Moving forward, NDI will work to provide women aspirants with the tools they need to launch successful campaigns and win parliamentary and local council seats. NDI and its local partners are using a multi-pronged approach that both strengthens the capacity of women aspirants but also establishes an enabling environment for them to flourish, including by constructing a network of male political party allies. While the passage of the GEWE Act is a critical achievement in the fight for gender equality in Sierra Leone, NDI staff know that their work has only just begun!
Authors: Jinnah Nyallay, Senior Program Officer, NDI Sierra Leone; Caitlin Erskine, Program Manager, NDI DC; Alexandra Middleberg, Program Associate, NDI DC; and Cecile Walton, Temporary Program Assistant, NDI DC
NDI’s engagement with this program is implemented with support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) program.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.