From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone suffered through a brutal civil war that resulted in 50,000 deaths. Two million people were displaced, more than 10,000 children were conscripted, thousands of people had limbs amputated, and countless women and girls were raped, forcibly “married,” or taken into sexual servitude.
Sierra Leone has made notable progress since the end of the war but remains fragile. Moreover, there was concern that presidential, parliamentary and local elections scheduled for November 17, 2012, had the potential to reignite violence. In previous elections, candidates and their supporters had been intimidated and often physically attacked. Women were especially vulnerable. Fear of violence had deterred many from seeking office and even voting, undermining progress toward a stable democracy.
The State Department wanted to take creative action to help Sierra Leone conduct free, fair, and peaceful elections. The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) worked closely with the U.S. Embassy, USAID, and the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues (GWI) to develop, fund, and carry out several initiatives, starting in August 2012. “In devising a strategy, we thought we could adapt lessons from recent elections in Senegal and Liberia,” says Kelly Georgens, a CSO engagement officer. “Women in both countries had been successful ambassadors for peace during their elections, so we decided that engaging Sierra Leone's women in similar efforts had great potential.” The U.S. plan had three main parts.
· Women-led grassroots peace messaging and cooperation with election authorities: We funded work in two high-risk districts by Fambul Tok (“family talk” in Sierra Leone's Krio language). This NGO had previously established the Peace Mothers program, an innovative community-level group that addressed women's unique post-war needs. Within these protective circles, women are reclaiming their voices and their strength, and changing their lives and their communities. With support from GWI and CSO, Fambul Tok hosted brainstorming sessions with 16 civil society organizations to develop conflict-prevention messages. “Then,” Georgens explains, “Fambul Tok used these messages to train 52 female community peace ambassadors to advocate non-violent activism, mediate conflict, host radio shows, and enlist electoral and state authorities in efforts to prevent escalation of local conflict.”
· The Women's Situation Room (WSR): The WSR mobilized women and youths under the theme “Peace is in our Hands” to actively and peacefully participate in elections by tracking electoral problems and promptly urging the appropriate authorities to take action. CSO's funds helped expand this work. Additionally, our diplomatic engagement, including several visits by the U.S. ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission to Sierra Leone and a statement of support by the Secretary, increased national media attention and elevated women's advocacy of nonviolence.
· Gender-sensitive police training and outreach: CSO partnered with a USAID-sponsored police advisor to identify ways for women and police to build relationships in support of early-warning and response mechanisms prior to the elections. “Our gender expert worked with USAID's police advisor in developing a gender-discrimination module to be used in training Sierra Leonean police officers nationwide,” says Georgens.
On November 17 the people of Sierra Leone conducted a largely peaceful election with participation by 87 percent of the country's 2.7 million voters, including a high percentage of women. While the electorally unsuccessful opposition raised issues about the balloting, international observers praised the poll as broadly free and fair and the election period was largely peaceful. “It was very exciting to have such success in our first elections conflict-prevention engagement specifically focusing on gender,” says Georgens. “We expect to have other opportunities to use and improve on the lessons from this effective campaign.”