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Sierra Leone Women Fight for More Representation

Women in Sierra Leone are trying to pass an amendment to the constitution that would set aside 30 percent of all elected and appointed political positions for women. Today, women hold only 13 percent of legislative seats, and three of 20 ministerial positions. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

After seven years in politics, Diana Konomanyi is no stranger to the challenges that face women in her field.

"It has been very, very difficult, and I find that quite challenging. In our own society, women are meant to be in the kitchen. There is no way to allow a woman to stand in front of a man to take decisions and make decisions," she said.

Konomanyi is the regional chairperson for her party, the ruling All People's Congress, in the diamond-rich eastern province.

"I just thought they needed somebody that could stand out and speak for them. That is what actually pushed me into politics," added Konomanyi.

In her current position, Konomanyi is one of the most powerful people in her political party. At the APC political convention in 2004, she spoke on behalf of all the regional chairpersons, the first woman ever to do so.

She was a trailblazer as well, when she ran for local parliament.

"We had four candidates, and I was the only woman in my constituency," added Konomanyi.

But Konomanyi did not win the election. And in the 2007 elections, women won only 13 percent of legislative seats, a drop from the 14 percent of seats women won in 2002.

Women activists in Sierra Leone say this needs to change, soon.

"I think it will be to the interest of the nation to have 52 percent of their population represented adequately in positions of decision making. We believe that to assist or to increase the development of the country, if we had women well positioned, they would come in with new ideas that would help towards the development of the nation," said Harriet Turay, the president of Sierra Leone-based 50/50 Group, a women's organization that promotes gender parity for women in government.

Turay's organization led women's groups in petitioning the government to amend the constitution to reserve at least 30 percent of appointed and elected political positions for women.

It would be part of a larger process in which the entire constitution is being updated. A specially created Constitutional Review Committee is expected to give its recommendations to President Ernest Bai Koroma early next year.

Turay says the idea of a 30 percent quota comes from the post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She says similar quotas have been used successfully elsewhere in Africa, such as in Tanzania and South Africa.

But Turay says she is not confident the amendment will be adopted.

"Disappointingly, I do not believe we will be able to have the 30 percent included in the constitution. Because they have come up with reasons why they cannot have it there. But that is just the beginning of things," she continued.

She says the government has promised to implement all Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, so she hopes, even if the amendment does not pass, the quota will still happen.

Ruling party organizing secretary Alimamy Koroma says he does not believe a constitutional quota is the best way to increase women's participation in government.

"The point of issue for me is to let women take the courage and come out and let the menfolk create that space, that opportunity. Not by the constitution, but by way of practice, it is more lasting that way," he said.

Sierra Leone has signed several international agreements that commit countries to eradicating discrimination against women and establishing targets for women in government.

The country is still recovering from a decade-long devastating civil war, during which women were raped, beaten and enslaved.

Neighboring Liberia, also recovering from a brutal civil war, made history when it became the first African county to elect a woman president, in 2005.