Women’s congress hears tales of political ambition and discrimination

‘Many of the women are interested but the fear is the attack and the insults’

Emilia Tongi's election to the Sierra Leone parliament this year was an unlikely victory given she is both an independent and a woman in a system closely guarded by men from establishment parties.

Having sold her cleaning business and returned home from France 10 years ago, Ms Tongi saw the wanting conditions, particularly in women's healthcare.

“What I saw was inhuman . . . unacceptable,” she told The Irish Times at the International Congress of Parliamentary Women’s Caucuses yesterday. After four short months in a parliament where, she says, women account for just 17 of 143 seats, her enthusiasm appears intact.

Ms Tongi faced five other candidates in her Kissi Tongi chiefdom constituency of the Kailahun District, all men with political backing. Her confidents told her it was impossible.


“I said I will do it. Try. Never say never. So that’s how I did it,” she said of an unlikely win in a land with a culture that still, in large parts at least, believes women should remain in domestic roles.”

Ms Tongi, though, believes she convinced her constituents that “this time around it shouldn’t be about the party, it shouldn’t be about the colours, the emblems; it should be about the position”.


She wants future generations of Sierra Leonean women to know that if “you have the ambition, if you have the dream, go for it”.

Differing versions of Ms Tongi’s story were evident at Dublin Castle yesterday. A theme emerged that while female participation, and acceptance, in politics has grown admirably in recent years, it still has some way to go.

Isabel Moreira is a professor in constitutional law and a member of the Socialist Party government in Portugal. As an activist and later as a politician, she helped craft many pieces of legislation to effect social change.

She notes that in her country, the government has increased the female quota in elections from 33 to 40 per cent with a parallel move in board membership for state-owned or supported companies.

“I think we [women in politics] have a long way to go,” she said. “I think we have to [make] twice the effort to be heard. Everything is scrutinised like crazy . . . nothing is forgiven.”

Tough opposition

Similarly, Comfort Doyoe Cudjoe Ghansah, an MP in her second term in Ghana, said life was not easy for politically aspiring women who face tough opposition from male opponents and who must, she believes, work 10 times as hard to have the same impact. Women make up 13 per cent of Ghana's parliament, she said.

“If a man is in a position of power they [the electorate] don’t care but if it’s a woman you have to show what you are bringing and what you are doing,” she said.

“Many of the women are interested but the fear is the attack and the insults and the challenges that they face.”

By comparison, things are healthy in Serbia where women account for 37 per cent of parliamentarians, one of the leading countries in the world.

"People in Serbia believe that women can be as good in leadership as men," said Marija Jevdic, a member of United Serbia. "I think we have an X factor, something that encourages women to be in politics."

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times