On 20th September this year United Nations secretary General Antonio Guterres in a video message to the Eurasian women’s forum, held in St. Petersburg urged the forum to make gender equality a reality and called for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This sentiment was also shared by the newly elected president of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Maria Garces who opens the 73rd UNGA meeting by highlighting gender equality as one of her priorities. This coincides with a call by Sierra Leone’s minister of information Mohamed Rado Swarray for Africa to do more to empower women. The UN meeting noted the many gaps in programming and legislation around SDGs, particularly in Africa.
This could be because needs approach of the SDGs overlooks many of the women’s rights that permeates through other human rights issues. While the SDG directly linked to gender has one major target to promote gender equality and empower women and girls, there are several other issues that prevent women’s involvement in development- quite often this is linked to violence against women.
Violence against women still holds very strongly in politics. It is a tool used by men to discourage women from venturing into politics. It is an easy way for men who feel threatened by women to express misogyny. It is one of the major reasons many capable women are shying away from politics. It is quite common and happens regularly in countries like Sierra Leone where the female mayor of Freetown last Saturday suffered a verbal attack by the deputy minister of local government. Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyer had an altercation with the deputy minister Philip Tondoneh over some misunderstanding about trucks that were meant to clear rubbish from the streets on cleaning Saturdays. The newly elected government of president Maada Bio declared a cleaning day exercise on every first Saturday of the month.
In a video that was circulated on social media, the deputy minister is seen openly chastising and demeaning the mayor in front of a crowd of people. The mayor kept calm and held a document as she explained the procedure she had followed. The deputy minister on the other hand was vividly raising his voice in what could clearly be viewed as intimidation and bullying. His behaviour could best be described as misogynistic and unscrupulous for a public official. apparently, this is not the first time the first elected female mayor of Freetown is being assaulted. Weeks after she was sworn in to office, she was assaulted by some supporters of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). The mayor is representing the opposition All people’s Congress (APC). But what does this mean for women who aspire to go into politics?
According to a recent study by centre for social research and UN women on violence against women in politics, insufficient implementation of laws and lack of support from the law enforcement agencies are major reasons for violence against women in politics. The study which was conducted in India, Nepal and Pakistan found that 60% of women do not participate in politics due to fear of violence, while 90% of women feel that violence prevents them from venturing into politics. In Sierra Leone violence against women is a major deterrent to female participation in politics. Violence is used to terrorise women who seek elective public office. This undermines women’s aspirations and efforts to get into public offices and when this happens, women are blamed for not doing enough to get elected.
Violence against women in politics is a common place in Sierra Leone. In the pre and post elections period in April this year, there were hindrances that deter women because they suffer discrimination, lack of finance, intimidation and bullying. First lady Mrs Fatima Bio was subjected to online bullying by supporters of the APC party. Mrs Bio is not the only woman who have suffered violence in politics. Famous female politicians like Dr Sylvia Blyden have also suffered political violence. In the cases of Mrs Bio and Dr Blyden, they were portrayed as sexual objects, only worthy of satisfying the sexual desire of men. In most cases, the violence is perpetrated by men who feel threatened by these women. And men who believe the political space belong to men. Violence against women in every sphere of life is a manifestation of unequal power relations between men and women. Men who perpetrate political violence against women are tied in their archaic belief that women are to be controlled, women are not equal to them and the political space is a patriarchal space. The way deputy minister Philip Tondoneh expressed himself in the video endorses this notion.
Mayor Aki-Sawyer had in the past received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award for her role during the Ebola outbreak. Yet, the deputy minister was questioning her relevance to Sierra Leone by asking her ‘Who are you’ in a derogatory manner. In the mind of Tondoneh, Yvonne is a woman and therefore regardless of her role and achievements, she is still a nobody. This act left me with one major question. Would minister Tondoneh had behaved the same if the mayor was a man? I seriously doubt that. The minister’s behaviour also questions the way he treats his wife and children.
Following the altercation, Minister Tondoneh was interviewed in the popular ‘Good morning Salone’ show on radio democracy 98.1. In that interview, he was neither remorseful nor had he any regrets for his behaviour. Indeed, he is confident his misogynistic and callous behaviour will go unpunished. This sends a clear message to women who aspire for elective offices in Sierra Leone. There are many men like Philip Tondoneh in Sierra Leone politics. But will all women politicians act like mayor Yvonne Aki-sawyer? As Sierra Leone's information minister calls for women empowerment in Africa - I wonder if he could first wipe out misogyny in his government before expanding his campaign to Africa.