Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Making a Voting Right a Voting Reality

Having the right to vote is one thing; using it properly, or indeed at all, is quite another, as Sierra Leone has shown ahead of general elections this Saturday.

Almost 50 years have passed since women were first allowed to cast ballots in the West African state. However, some may be prevented from fully exercising their voting rights come Aug. 11 -- in large part because tradition and a lack of education for women keep them excluded from the political process.

"Women are less likely than men to be able to name the date of the next election, are less likely to be able to name political parties, and are less likely to rate themselves as having a high level of knowledge about the electoral process," notes an overview of key findings from a survey titled 'Sierra Leone Elections 2007: A Comprehensive Baseline Study of Knowledge, Priorities and Trust'.

The study was conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service Trust and Search for Common Ground, an international non-governmental organisation, with funding from Britain's Department for International Development.

While 80 percent of men surveyed said they knew the date of the upcoming vote, 65 percent of women were aware of the date. The percentage of women who knew the date was especially low in Pujehun (52 percent) and Bo (43 percent) -- both in eastern Sierra Leone.

Over a third of men claimed to know a lot about the electoral process, compared to a quarter of women surveyed.

Similarly, a 2006 study by the British chapter of aid agency Oxfam and the 50/50 Group found that almost a quarter of persons surveyed in the eastern Kailahun and Koinadugu districts -- 23.8 percent -- believed a woman could not vote for a candidate of her choice.

Efforts are underway to change this situation, however, including a nationwide campaign by the 50/50 Group to ensure greater participation of women in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary polls.

This initiative got underway recently with funding from the African Women's Development Fund, headquartered in Ghana's capital, Accra. The 50/50 Group is a civic organisation that tries to increase women's representation in politics to reflect the fact that they make up about half of the population. Sierra Leone's 2004 census put the country's population at about five million persons, 52 percent of them women.

Addressing journalists in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown, Nemata Eshun-Baiden -- founder and past president of the group -- said the initiative was also aimed at showing women how to avoid casting void ballots.

Notes a 50/50 press release: "Although training (has) been conducted there is a need for more training and awareness-raising of women in breaking the barriers that militate against them participating and making informed choices during elections."

"(The) majority of the women are still not politically, socially and economically equipped for political participation."

The campaign is taking the form of workshops co-led by officials from the National Electoral Commission (NEC). Polling stations are being simulated during these events, to give women the chance to practice voting with the use of mock ballot papers.

Ballots for the election will show pictures of candidates to help illiterate voters -- something of particular concern to women in Sierra Leone. According to the 2006 United Nations Development Report, only 24.4 percent of women in the country are literate, compared to 46.9 percent of men.

Other aspects of the voting process are also discussed in the workshops. In addition, messages urging women to vote are being broadcast on radio and television in a number of local languages. According to the survey by the BBC and Search for Common Ground, "A greater proportion of radio listeners than non-listeners know the date of elections, and a greater proportion of listeners than non-listeners report high levels of confidence in their knowledge of the electoral process."

The 50/50 Group plans to work with the electoral commission to assess the effectiveness of the campaign by analysing whether there is a greater turnout of women voters next month, compared to earlier polls (NEC spokesman Isaac Curtis Hooke says about 2.6 million people have registered to vote in the forthcoming elections, 49 percent of them women).

But in a country where years of civil war have taken a particular toll on women, are wives and mothers who are consumed by the daily struggle of maintaining households able to attend the workshops?

Ehun-Baiden is optimistic: "We will use megaphones (and) do whatever we can for women to leave their chores to attend our workshops," she told IPS.

If women do start to exercise their voting power, they may well change the face of politics in Sierra Leone.

The Oxfam and 50/50 'PACER Baseline Survey Report' found that 75 percent of women interviewed would be willing to vote for a female presidential candidate, while only 55 percent of men were similarly inclined.

Not one of the country's three main political parties has chosen a woman to represent it in the presidential poll.

Women make up 14.5 percent of Sierra Leone's outgoing legislature, and there are also three female cabinet ministers.

Sierra Leone is one of the world's most poverty stricken countries, its extensive diamond reserves having fuelled the brutal civil that ended in 2002. The U.N. Development Report notes that three quarters of people here live on less than two dollars a day.

allAfrica.com: Sierra Leone: Making a Voting Right a Voting Reality (Page 1 of 1)