Dakar — A change of president in Sierra Leone will bring a new chance to fight for reproductive rights and girls' education although the lack of women in government will make it tough, activists said.
The West African nation will hold a run-off election on Saturday to replace President Ernest Bai Koroma, who has reached his two-term limit, after a vote earlier this month was marred by allegations of fraud and complaints of police harassment.
Koroma twice blocked a bill to legalise abortion and his government banned pregnant girls from attending school.
Sierra Leone ranks 179 out of 188 countries on the U.N. Development Programme's latest gender inequality index, which measures reproductive health, empowerment, and economic status.
Women's groups will have to be strategic and proactive if they want to take advantage of the election, activists said.
"The moment the government is in we want to be tabling things, pushing for things," said Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, a gender studies professor and former president of the gender parity group 50/50.
Newly elected officials "might want to look good" and take action, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sierra Leone has the world's highest maternal mortality rate, with about one in 70 women dying during or shortly after childbirth, according to the World Health Organization.
Up to one third of those deaths result from unsafe abortions, often carried out by untrained people because the procedure is banned, campaigners say.
But when parliament passed a bill in 2015 to legalise abortion in certain cases, powerful religious groups denounced it and Koroma did not sign it into law.
"I think with a new government it will be open for us to try again," said Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, a lawyer and activist.
However, the election earlier this month did not show positive signs for gender equality, several activists said.
There was a drop since 2012 in the number of women running in major parties, and neither of the presidential candidates - opposition leader Julius Maada Bio and ruling party standard-bearer Samura Kamara - gave any indication that they would champion women's rights, said Jusu-Sheriff.
Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) figures show that only 12.4 percent of parliamentarians in Sierra Leone in 2012 were female.
"I feel really sad that I don't see a lot of progress," said Sabrina Mahtani, a researcher for Amnesty International, who has observed three elections in Sierra Leone since 2005.
- Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith