FREETOWN — Sierra Leone held its third election since the end of its decade-long civil war on November 17. The country has moved forward in some ways. Roads are better and health care is improving, but the status of women, particularly in politics, is improving only slowly in the face of cultural and economic barriers.
Kadi Sesay is used to firsts.
She was the first woman to head the English Department at Fourah Bay College in the capital, Freetown. She was the first woman to head the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights. She also was the first woman to be Minister of Development and Economic Planning.
She aimed to become Sierra Leone's first female vice president when she signed on as the running mate for main opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio in the Nov. 17 election.
"The only disqualifying clause was that I was a woman and I kept asking people who is going to decide when county will be ready. Is it the men? I felt challenges definitely, but as time went on we had a good campaign and think all my male colleagues respected me," said Sesay.
She says women like her are unfortunately the exception. She says most women in Sierra Leone, cannot afford to stand for elections and, even if they do, they face discrimination and accusations of having "slept their way to the top."
The National Election Commission told VOA that just the cost of registering to be a candidate varies depending on the race - presidential, parliamentary or local - but can be as much as $230.
Though Sesay and her running mate, Julius Maada Bio, did not win this year's election, Sesay says progress is being made.
"With more women at the top, the more likely younger women will look at older women and want to copy their examples and that is challenge - how do you get more women at the top," she asks.
Single mother Bonnet Sesay earns about $150 a month as a housekeeper in Freetown. She says men often overpower women at home and at work and that she hopes that more women in power would mean greater emphasis on issues like health and education.
"It's going to help people like me. I have no husband, I have two children, so if we have women in parliament or as vice president they can help us, forward our problems. Most men here are taking advantage of us," said Bonnet Sesay.
But activists say not all successful female politicians are interested in helping other women succeed.
Nemata Majeks-Walker is the founder of the 50/50 group in Sierra Leone, an organization pushing for women to have a stronger presence in politics.
She says a small caucus of female parliament members were supposed to lobby for a gender parity bill this year that would set up a 30 percent quota of women in parliament. The bill was, instead, dismissed in September.
"They had other interests, other priorities at the time - campaigning, working with their constituents, rather than prioritizing the bill, they were already in parliament. I feel it is bitter lesson for them because many of them have lost their seats, if they had focused attention on this, that might have helped to give them more places in parliament," said Majeks-Walker.
The election commission says there was a very small increase of women running in elections this year compared to the last election in 2007.
Commission spokesman Christopher Jones said Sesay was one of three women running for vice president under various political parties. And, the number of women running for parliament seats went from 64 from the last election to 67 this year. But that was still just a fraction of the total 586 parliamentary candidates.
"Despite some people saying it is insignificant, but I will say is on increase and gradually by time women will get stronger, they will reach the kind of percentage they are seeking for," said Jones.
Richard Howitt, the chief election observer in Sierra Leone for the European Union, says it was disappointing to see so few women on the ballots.
"It's laid down in convention of United Nations, covering every country in the world - what we need to see in this country is more education for women, more economic progress for women, which will give them financial means which is important in elections," said Howitt.
Women in countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal have dramatically increased their representation thanks to laws requiring that a certain number of parliament seats be reserved for women or that a certain percentage of each party's candidates be women.
Female activists in Sierra Leone say they will continue to campaign for similar legislation.