“this is a singular occasion in the history of Sierra Leone when Parliament has been taken over, if only in a symbolic way, by women. By holding their launching of the 50/50 Group in the Hall of Parliament and later staging a mock parliament on the need for 50/50 representation of men and women in parliament as well as a Mock State Opening of the First Female Parliament, in the Well of the House, the 50/50 Group is making a dramatic statement of their intention to take their rightful place in the government of this country. I say ‘rightful’ because this is clearly a matter of right.”
I don’t think I have been as proud of any of my achievements as I am of this one. Of course, I dare not take all the credit for myself. I have people like Abator Davidson and Mr. Rajiv Bendre, the then Deputy Director and Director of the British Council in Sierra Leone respectively, to thank first and foremost. It was they who invited the British Consultant, Lesley Abdela, to run a workshop entitled ‘Increasing Women’s Participation in Democratic Politics’ in 2000. In fact, Abator and Patricia Macauley co-facilitated the workshop, which had forty participants.
Propelled by a renewed desire to fulfill my passion for women’s equality, a passion that stemmed from my childhood experiences as a Muslim girl faced with religious restrictions and inequality, when asked for my Action Plan at the end of the workshop. I said that I would set up a group similar to the “300 Group” that had been set up in England by the workshop’s facilitator. The aim of the Group then was to encourage and empower women to participate in politics through training and advocacy. This aim has now been broadened to include other emerging issues.
Most of the participants of the workshop were thrilled by the idea. We all caught the vision with great excitement and ran with it. Through the influence of Rajiv, who took a close personal interest in the Group’s activities, we were given an office at the British Council. They also provided funds for day-to-day administrative costs, production of training manuals and made their training room and facilities available. It was a really challenging task as the team and I worked assiduously to set up the Group. Justice Musu Kamara suggested we name it the 50/50 Group and we had men like Dr. Gibril Sesay and Foday Fofanah helping. It took a whole year of preparation before the Group was formally launched on the 30th of November 2001.
Among the very first tasks my executive was engaged in was the production of a Training Manual and organising trainings based on Lesley Abdela’s first workshop. We have produced over 20 training manuals since then. Another task was to prepare the “Sierra Leonean Women’s Manifesto/ Declaration”, which was produced in collaboration with the National Organisation for Women (NOW) under the leadership of Dr. Nana Pratt and a wide spectrum of women’s associations in Sierra Leone within the Women’s Forum.
We’ve come a long, long way since then. We keep surmounting the very many problems that inevitably arise when intelligent, educated and passionate women get together! To use a very recent example, at the first meeting of our new executive, when I suggested that I, as the Founder, should be the Archivist of the Organisation and that all correspondences should be copied to me for continuity and Institutional Memory, since Presidents come and go and we do not currently have full time staff, our new organising secretary promptly replied: “What will happen when you die?” I am sure she merely stopped short of accusing me of suffering from the founder’s syndrome!!!
Then there was a new member who thought our dear Rajiv was a woman! These are some of the things that keep us going, as we don’t take ourselves too seriously all the time!
Our greatest and more serious challenge came from our men who felt that we were trying to challenge their authority. I will never forget the women who told us that their husbands were now telling them that since women were clamouring for “fifty percent in everything,” they as wives should begin to contribute fifty percent toward the housekeeping and the children’s school fees, etc. Despite all of this, we have had six highly-dedicated and hardworking women to steer our affairs as presidents, beginning with:
1. My humble self from 2001 - 2002
2. Abator Thomas (now Davidson): 2003-2005. Let me speak on her behalf by adding that during her tenure, she travelled all over the country with her Secretary, the late Mrs Satta Kumba Amara, setting up branches and forging links with women in almost all the fourteen districts in the country. As a result, the Group became a truly national organisation, with its own office in Freetown and active branches in every district of Sierra Leone.
3. Haja Mariama Fofanah - 2005 – 2006: It was Haja who initiated our relationship with OXFAM
4. Mrs. Harriett Turay – 2007-2010: who acted for Haja and continued with the OXFAM- PACER Project
5. Haja Saiminatu Kassim – 2010- 2012, during whose tenure, our building was started
6. Dr. Aisha Ibrahim – 2013- 2015: our Ebola and Constitutional Review Commission President
7. Dr. Fatou Taqi - our current President who seems to have entered with a lot of innovative ideas. Fatou, we are hopeful.
We have also moved from pillar-to-post as they say, changing addresses five times!!! There was a time when funds were so low that we had to move our offices to someone’s boys’ quarters, paying the rent out of our own pockets! So it was from the British Council Office - to King Harman Road Boys’ Quarters, - to 4, West Street - to 34B Main Motor Road, Congo Cross before we finally moved into A PLACE WE NOW PROUDLY CALL OUR VERY OWN!!!!! - 50 OAU DRIVE, TOWER HILL. These are some of the experiences that made us stronger and kept us going! Seven presidents and five addresses in fifteen years! Not bad at all!
We must congratulate ourselves for some of the great strides we have taken, especially the acquisition of this building For the land on which this building stands, I want to pay a special tribute to the memory of our first indefatigable secretary – Satta Kumba Amara - who was very committed to the vision of the group and who almost single-handedly initiated the move for us to acquire this piece of land from the Government. We shall never forget this dynamic and versatile secretary who died in the course of championing the cause of WOMEN.
I urge you my sisters to put our shoulders to the wheel and fundraise for the completion of our building.
As evidence of the international recognition we have enjoyed, the Group became the first ever African recipient of the Madeleine K. Albright Grant in 2007. This Grant was established in 2005, building on the Win with Women Global Initiative to honour organizations that exhibit exceptional promise to create a greater role for women in civic life. Four Past Presidents travelled to the United States to receive the award.
I could go on and on talking about our achievements over the years. But we must not rest on our laurels. We have still not realized our reason for being - which is to have 50 percent of Sierra Leonean women walking side by side with our men in political and decision-making arenas. Our achievements serve to show that: Yes we can do it and we will do it as we continue on determined not to give up or let go of our vision. During our 10th Anniversary celebrations, we got the British High Commissioner to kindly host a Fundraising event for our Building at his Residence. We published a booklet entitled: 50/50 Fifty is 10 years, which was sold as part of the programme. I hope we can do another one for our 20th Anniversary celebration, after we would have formally institutionalised our Trainings in our completed Institute!!!
It would be remiss of me if I fail to mention those who supported us with funding over the years. Our very first international funding came, again through the untiring efforts of Rajiv Bendre of the British Council, from The Westminster Foundation for Democracy. We also had support from The Global Fund for Women, NDI, OXFAM, OSIWA, UN Women, AWDF, Action Aid, Christian Aid, Opportunity Fund- WJP – Washington-USA), IBIS, etc. I wish to extend our deep appreciation to all our funders, partners, associates, networks, coalition members, our past presidents, our executive, our members, our district coordinators and staff for their commitment to enhance women’s voices in policy spaces. Our achievements are due to you all as well as all the dynamic women and supportive men in all the districts of Sierra Leone. This includes those in the sub-region and beyond who believe in the vision of the organisation. You have all been part of our team and we are very proud to celebrate the fifteen years of our existence with you. Your continued support of our vision provides us with hope and confidence in the years ahead.
MORE WOMEN! BETTER POLITICS! AND BETTER LEADERSHIP!!!