Sierra Leone's Fight for Gender Equality

A short documentary explores the role of women in Sierra Leonean politics.

From 1991 to 2002 civil war consumed Sierra Leone, killing more than 50,000 people. While the story of the war has been told in various forms (most notably the Hollywood movie Blood Diamond), far less attention has focused on the country's attempts to step out from behind the specter of violence.

But in this short documentary 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone), filmmakers Anna Cady, Em Cooper, and Jenny Cuffe tell the unfolding story of several Sierra Leonean women and their attempts to gain equal access in the political arena.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Anna Cady talks about the role of women in ending the conflict, the current state of women in Sierra Leonean politics, and her hopes for the film.

The Atlantic: Can you explain the significance of your film's title?

Anna Cady: We went to Sierra Leone to listen to what the women wanted to say. In November 2011 when we were there, the election was looming and the women were working hard on a new bill to which the President had given his backing which would give women a 30% Quota in Parliament. It was clear from the outset that this was the issue that they needed to forefront in our film–hence the title–30%. The three women come from different ethnic groups, religions and political parties yet they were all working to promote the role of women in the governance of Sierra Leone. Even though the main protagonist / role model in the film is Bernadette Lahai (now leader of the minority party) this diversity, we believe, gives integrity and authenticity to our representation of their campaign.

Sierra Leone went through a civil war from 1991 to 2002 in which 50,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. From your experience making the film, can you discuss some of the ways that the aftermath of such death and destruction continues to affect the country?

Sierra Leone has a democratically elected government which is working hard to overcome its past. We were asked not to dwell on aspects of the war in the film but to concentrate on the future. The film begins with an abstract animation of the war in order to bring attention to the horrors of the past without spelling it out. I do not feel it is my place to describe the realities of every day life in the country today as we were only there for under a week. Evidence of the war is an everyday reality and the infrastructure of the country continues to be extremely limited (water and electricity) but I hesitate, as a brief and privileged visitor to the country to answer this question in much detail. We were beautifully looked after by Hussainatu Abdullah, the researcher for the project, and Bernadette lent us her driver and car. We did not experience the reality of what life is like for the people of Sierra Leone today; also we did not have time (budget) to travel into rural areas.

In the film you mention the importance of women in ending the civil war, in what ways were women critical in advancing the peace process?

[I'll quote Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, who explains] "The military government was uneasy about public discussion and particularly sensitive about criticism of their handling of the war. The women's peace campaign put the issue in the public domain in a non-partisan and non-confrontational manner that made public debate of contentious issues possible without the fear of automatically offending the government."

Since production of the film finished over one year ago, have women in Sierra Leone had any more success in their efforts to gain a larger political presence?

The 30% bill was not able to go through Parliament for the 2012 election but the 50/50 group are still working on it.

What do you hope is the impact of the film?

Attitudinal change is imperative with regard to women’s role in Sierra Leone. My hope is that the film may reach many people within and without Africa for them to see and understand the extraordinary courage and strength of these powerful and intelligent women.

The film is being used for education in [England] and has been taken into educational establishments all over the world. It has been screened in the Houses of Parliament in the U.K., and in countless other organizations so one hopes that support and funding for the women’s campaign may extend to a more international audience.

And finally, and most recently, the women have asked for a large number of DVDs of our film to use in their campaign. For me personally this is the most hopeful, and exciting development–maybe, just maybe, 30% (Women and Politics in Sierra Leone) will have the opportunity to make a difference for the women and by the women.

To learn more about the organization that funded the film, Pathways to Women's Empowerment, visit their website.