International Women’s Day and Sierra Leone’s Unsung Heroines

19 March 2006 at 03:21 | 681 views

A glowing tribute to African women by Deputy Editor Abdulai Bayraytay, based in Toronto. Bayraytay has worked closely with many Sierra Leonean female activists for several years.

By Abdulai Bayraytay

March 8th every year is globally celebrated as International Women’s Day in recognition of the uncompromising strides made in the historic emancipation of women from the yoke of discrimination, castigation and, above all, chauvinism.

In Africa, if there are contemporary female activists, politicians, peacemakers, tribute should be paid to forerunners like Queen Nzinga of Angola who mobilized her country folk to resist Portuguese colonialists, Nehanda of Zimbabwe who challenged British colonial rule, Lilian Ngoyi who rubbished the Apartheid imposed pass laws in South Africa, Bibi Titi Mohamed of Tanzania who struggled for independence side by side with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, among others.

In Sierra Leone, Madam Yoko, Constance Agatha Cummings-John among others served as legendary examples in the emancipation of women and the struggle for independence respectively. Cummings-John was particularly credited for organizing market women for political action, which eventually made her the first female mayor of the municipality of Freetown.

In contemporary Sierra Leone, there are silent heroines like Jeredine Williams who ventured out to challenge the male domination of the political landscape by forming the Coalition for Progress Party to contest the 1996 presidential elections. She could not however withstand the political bullying and backed out.

During the struggle to restore the ousted President Kabbah in 1997, women like the deputy speaker of parliament Mrs. Elizabeth Lavalie of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), Mrs. Afsatu Kabbah of the opposition All People’s Congress party (APC), Mrs. Teresa Koroma, deputy minister of Trade deserve commendation for courageously trekking the rocky and often dangerous Guinean terrain to deliver food supplies provided by the late first lady, Mrs. Patricia Kabbah, to Sierra Leonean refugees in Mola, Farmoreah, Daghagbeh and Kalia camps. Nervous as I was in their company whilst doing a similar delivery to colleague refugee students scattered in all the camps in Guinea, I eventually mustered courage in order to suppress my fear in the presence of women.

As Sierra Leone joins hands with the rest of the world to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day, a name that prominently comes to mind is also that of Mrs. Zainab Hawa Bangura. If for anything, she is one of the modern examples in shaping the political landscape of Sierra Leone because of her fearless stance in the struggle to end the war. A co-founder and former coordinator of the advocacy NGO, Campaign for Good Gopvernance, she was able to mobilize the grassroots’ communities in calling on rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in May 2000 to disarm. The erstwhile rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, was eventually captured and the RUF contained. Zainab’s role was credited by all and sundry, including the government and the international community.

But, in Sierra Leone,dueto male chauvinism, women’s roles are usually limited to activism and do not extend to challenging the political patriarchal class. Zainab’s role in putting pressure on the junta to hold elections, her advocacy for peace became eclipsed with her decision to contest the 2002 presidential elections. Her Movement for Progress (MOP) party came under scathing attacks and her personality stabbed by hired essayists and hacks masquerading as journalists. This kind of behaviour poses a serious challenge to the 50/50 group that is currently investing time and money in encouraging women to effectively participate in the forthcoming 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections.

The struggle for women’s liberation that heralded the International Women’s Day did not happen in a vacuum. It was a celebration of ordinary women as makers of history in their struggle for equality with men. During the French Revolution of 1789, for instance, Parisian women not only enthusiastically joined their male counterparts in the destruction of the Bastille, but they injected a new aura in the revolution by agitating for liberty, equality and fraternity. In the United states on the other hand, all women agitated for were "bread and roses", a clarion call to end the discrimination they faced in the workplace and demanded a living wage in order to live a decent, human life.

International Women’s day gained a new global momentum for both developed and developing countries including Africa in 1945 after the San Francisco meeting that for the first time created an international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right.

As posterity proved the German parliament wrong for accusing German socialist and theoretician, Clara Zetkin, who proposed March 8th as International Women’s Day, as " the most dangerous sorceress in the empire", modern African women activists, especially those in Sierra Leone, should take a cue from this and never renege on the struggle in asserting their political rights for a better continent.

Photo: Zainab Bangura, now with the UN in Liberia.