On October 24, 2007, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) presented its third annual Madeleine K. Albright Grant to the 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone. Founded in 2000 to promote greater participation of women in politics, the 50/50 Group has grown from a handful of women meeting in borrowed space in Freetown to a nationally recognized organization actively engaged in building a new post-war Sierra Leone in which women can share equally with men in the political decisions that affect their lives.
The Madeleine K. Albright Grant annually honors an organization that exhibits exceptional promise in creating a greater role for women in political and civic life. The recipient is selected from a competitive pool of applicants who submit proposals to be conducted using grant money. NDI created the Albright Grant in 2005 to demonstrate the Institute’s sustained commitment to promoting the equitable participation of women in politics and government.
The 50/50 Group’s accomplishments stand on their own, but are amplified by the environment in which they operate. Sierra Leone often ranks last or near last in country surveys of human development and living standards—a placement that reflects the devastating consequences of a fierce 11-year civil war notorious for the gruesome maiming of thousands of citizens by machete-wielding rebels; for the wholesale displacement of the population; and for its ravaging effects on the country’s infrastructure.
Out of these ruins emerged the 50/50 Group, whose founders recognized that while women in Sierra Leone—like their counterparts in other war-torn societies—disproportionately bore the consequences of combat, and had for decades been virtually excluded from political decision-making processes that either led to hostilities or hastened their end. Even though women’s organizations had mobilized against the rebels during the civil war, they were quickly shut out of the post-war governing structures. Since women represented a critical component in Sierra Leone’s reconstruction process, the 50/50 Group was at the forefront of those demanding that they take their place in a more inclusive political system.
Launched in 2000 with NDI support, the 50/50 Group seeks to live up to its name by ensuring an equal share of power between men and women in the country’s traditionally male-dominated political system. The Group was established to change public perception of women in politics, remove barriers to women’s political participation, and equip the next generation of women candidates with the tools necessary to achieve electoral success.
Facing its first electoral test during general polls in 2002, the Group mobilized intensive leadership and campaign training; organized a cadre of experienced trainers across the country and establishing local branches in all of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts. During the training period, women candidates concluded that absent a clear and comprehensive platform on women’s issues, they would continue to be marginalized from the political process. The 50/50 Group and women candidates subsequently produced and distributed the “Sierra Leone Women’s Manifesto,” which underscored the importance of meeting the needs of women in all sectors of development and established a strong foundation upon which to set priorities for a future legislative agenda.
Due in part to the efforts of the 50/50 Group, opportunities for women’s political participation increased dramatically during the 2002 election period with all competing parties placing women on their electoral lists. Campaign workshops organized by NDI and the 50/50 Group acquainted women who aspired to elective office with the practical skills and tools to run effective, issue-based campaigns, while a sustained media campaign conducted by the 50/50 Group successfully increased popular awareness of women candidates. Ultimately, 16 women were elected to parliament, three times the number elected in 1996, and they went on to actively participate in the country’s post-war government. During subsequent local polls in 2004, scores of 50/50 Group-trained women were elected to public office in their communities.
Having become a household name through its prominent electoral activities, the 50/50 Group capitalizes on the period between elections to further its mission especially the long-term goal of changing traditional prejudices and stereotypes that have marginalized women in the past. Between elections, the Group promotes its objectives through its branches around the country. A year-around radio talk show educates the general public on leadership, women’s issues and local government, and seeks to change perceptions of women in politics through regular interviews with successful women. These efforts have helped build a network of talented women ready to assume leadership roles in politics and civic life.
The organization’s proven success at promoting women’s political participation and its impressive proposal to engage women in politics at the community level represented a winning combination in the competition for the 2007 Madeleine K. Albright Grant. In its proposal, the 50/50 Group commits to providing women with the skills and confidence to successfully compete in the 2008 local elections and to working toward establishing a campaign environment more receptive to women’s political participation. This grassroots effort will involve intensive skills training with women activists across the country; public education and voter outreach campaigns designed to improve women’s knowledge of and access to electoral processes; and the creation of networking groups as forums for sharing information and building mutual support among potential female leaders.
Published on July 3, 2007