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Sierra Leonean Candidate Hopes to Forge Trail for Women


In a densely populated, ramshackle neighborhood of Freetown, in Sierra Leone, Hariatu Turay is battling for a seat in parliament, one of only 64 women running out of more than 500 candidates. Naomi Schwarz visited her on the campaign trail in Freetown and has more for VOA about women and politics in Sierra Leone.

Hariatu Turay's stately two-story house and the bright-white SUV parked outside present a stark contrast to the rundown homes and gutted roads nearby in the neighborhood.

But Turay's door is wide open. A constant stream of visitors pass through and loiter in the courtyard outside.

They are supporters for Turay's political campaign, and they are excited to stand by her. Turay is running for parliament in elections to be held along-side the presidential election on Saturday.

Agnes Kamara, 26, and a mother of two, says it is very important to have women in politics to combat problems women face.

"We will encounter violence with our husbands, because we are married now, encounter many, many things, difficulties in our country with women. So we are sure if we have women in parliament we will feel free," said Kamara.

Candidate Turay agrees.

"We, the women, we know each others' problems. Whatever you are feeling, the pinch you are feeling, is affecting the other women," she said. "We need to help ourselves."

But observers have been disappointed by the number of women candidates in this election. Only about 10 percent of the candidates for parliamentary seats are women. This is far lower than the 30 percent minimum women's rights activists were pressing for.

Turay says the low number is a result of women being marginalized in the past and having not received enough education or encouragement.

But Harriet Turay, president of The 50/50 Group, a Sierra Leonean organization dedicated to gender equality, says despite the low number of female candidates, a push is being made to bring women into the political fold.

"We now know the women must be in those constituencies nurturing them for the elections," she said.

But, she says, a change in the way parliamentary seats are divided in districts is working against women in this election.

"We had a change of the mode of elections also. For the past two elections, because it was just after the war, we had a new type of election process here that was called the PR-system, which was woman friendly and that gave us more women in both the parliament and the local government," she added.

PR-system stands for proportional representation. In that system, the percentage of votes that groups of candidates obtain in elections is matched with the percentage of parliamentary seats they receive. Even if the party comes in second or third, they are still guaranteed some representation.

But in the new system Sierra Leone has adopted, candidates from each party battle for a single seat in each constituency, and the winner takes all. It means political parties aim to present a candidate they feel confident can win. Women, who have only recently begun having a significant role in politics, can be riskier candidates.

Candidate Turay says she has experienced resistance to her campaign because she is a woman.

"They are calling me all sort of names. They say I am a prostitute. They say all sorts of bad things," she said.

But Turay, well-known for her successful restaurant and club at a nearby beach, is battling on.

"I did not grow up in a home when there is money, so I suffered a lot. And I know what it meant during those hard days," she added. "So I thought it fit to say, there are more women out there that are suffering the same I was suffering. If I have got a small chance, it is better for me to help them out."

Five years ago, she began offering scholarships to young girls. She has paid for more than 30 girls to leave the streets and put them in school as well. And two years ago, she began offering microcredit loans to women. She has made more than 500 such loans.

Her civic activities have brought her a lot of recognition in the community and she says she is confident of her victory.

"I am going to win, get 90 percent. Then I will leave the 10 percent for the many contestants to go and fight for the 10 percent. But my 90 percent is sure," she said.

But Turay is running with the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party. Her constituency has tended to vote for the opposition party, the All People's Congress, and the scores of supporters rallying through the neighborhood show that party is still strong here.

Analysts say many women candidates face this problem. They are fighting for seats against entrenched candidates.

But come election day, in Turay's constituency, it is almost a lock a women will win, and her name will be Turay. She and her opponent from APC, Salamatu Turay, are family.

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