This paper discusses Liberian women’s access to formal political influence and representation in the bicameral legislature. Even if women are visible and powerful in Liberian politics, their participation is dependent on government appointments rather than the will of the voters. Current political, economic, social, cultural and religious constraints within both formal and informal public and private spheres make it challenging for women to receive the necessary support to become viable candidates for positions in the bicameral legislature, as well as other levels of governance. Given the slow speed at which the number of women in Liberian politics – especially in elected offices – is growing, there are ever increasing calls for more efficient methods of inclusion to ensure a gender balance in political institutions.
Women’s visibility in Liberian politics has increased significantly
After years of civil war and political turbulence, the world’s view of Liberian politics has started to change. Instead of political turmoil and warlords fighting for power, people, both internationally and domestically, associate Liberian politics with ‘Ma Ellen’ - President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, of course. The second thing that comes to mind is the presence of influential women in general. Two of the three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 were Liberian women being recognised “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding work.”(2) The kind of exposure an award like the Nobel Peace Prize generates is likely to colour people’s opinions and beliefs for a long time to come.
The Liberian Government’s current leader, President Johnson-Sirleaf, is one of these Nobel laureates, and the first woman to hold presidential office in Liberia and on the African continent. During her two mandate periods, women’s visibility in Liberian politics has increased significantly. As soon as she came into power in 2006, she made clear that women had a future in her administration and Liberian politics.(3) Several women were appointed to high-profile positions in Johnson-Sirleaf’s first Cabinet, and a few months into her presidency she said that while she “didn’t dare have an all-women Cabinet,” she had toyed with that idea. She went on to say that women were strategically placed in the ministries of finance, justice and commerce, sending “a strong signal that we believe that women who have the competence … based on our experience, do have a higher level of integrity.”(4)
During the tenure of Africa’s first female president, women have, to a greater degree than before, been appointed to official government positions that have too often been ‘reserved’ for men. Examples of such positions are the appointments of female ambassadors to Belgium, China, Germany, the Nordic countries, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa, as well as the Mayor of Monrovia. The first post-war Inspector-General of the Liberia National Police was a woman, as are at least 5 of 16 county superintendents, as well as the Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.(5) This is an encouraging improvement. However, it is worth highlighting that these are government appointments. They have not been elected by the Liberian people, and it is here that the challenge and predicament begins: Women’s participation in the political process is dependent on the government’s will, rather than the will of the people.
The Constitutional Review Process
The current Liberian Constitution of 1986 has been deemed outdated and is currently undergoing a review process by the Law Reform Commission in collaboration with the Governance Commission and the Constitution Review Committee.(6) The Constitutional Review Process was launched after the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2009 report and is, among many things, expected to recommend the establishment of a formal quota for female political candidates.
In January 2013, several women’s advocacy groups gathered in Monrovia at a meeting, or symposium as it was called, organised by the agencies responsible for the on-going Constitutional Review Process, to discuss women’s access to formal political influence. Women’s advocacy groups’ participation at this symposium was intended to broaden the discussion on gender issues relevant to the Constitutional Review Process. By supporting the process, the women’s advocacy groups hope to integrate a gender perspective into the Constitutional Review Process and protect the interests of Liberian women.
According to one of the delegates, Professor Susan Williams from the Centre for Constitutional Democracy, Indiana University, “women are over 50% of the population of Liberia, and any constitution that does not include women's perspective[s] and address women's concerns cannot be called democratic.”(7) She pointed out that there is a long way to go before the Liberian women’s interests are protected and reflected in the Constitution, leading to a situation in which women are excluded from the governance process. Sundaiway E. Amegashie, a Human Rights Officer at the United Nations Mission in Liberia, stated that “though Liberia has a woman President, [women] are not fully represented in the governance process of the country.”(8) These messages were supported by Deweh E. Gray, Vice Chair of the Law Reform Commission, who said “we have a lot of issues as women that we need to capture as we go about the reviewing process of our constitution. We have to bring a strong case for issues to be raised.”(9)
Discrepancy between intention and current developments
When considering the arguments about women’s lack of political representation from the women’s advocacy groups at the symposium one might think their criticisms a bit harsh. After all, the president of Liberia is a woman, and many of the most influential and high-profile Cabinet positions are held by women. Surely women of Liberia must have an appropriate political representation? The situation in Liberia is probably better than most other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, is it not?
There is no doubt that women’s access to formal political influence has greatly improved during Johnson-Sirleaf’s presidency, but there is still a great deal of work to do. Women’s role in Liberian politics is still far from the ambition Johnson-Sirleaf presented in her 2006 Inaugural address, when she assured that “My Administration shall thus endeavour to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country. My Administration shall empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life.”(10)
Women’s participation has both increased and become more visible across the entire African continent. Although there are considerable variations among nations, the average number of women in parliament in Sub-Saharan Africa is 20.3%, above the world average of 19.6%,(11) with Rwanda superseding Sweden as number one in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation: Rwanda has 56.3% female representation against Sweden’s 45%.(12) South Africa and Uganda are not far behind Rwanda with 44.5% and 35% respectively.(13)
Liberia does not even come close to these numbers. Comparing Liberian women’s representation to the average in Sub-Saharan Africa, Liberia barely has half the representation. Indeed, while democracy has improved and strengthened during Johnson-Sirleaf’s time in power,(14) women’s representation in the bicameral legislature has decreased. While the 2011 election was a success as well as a significant indicator of Liberia’s development towards a sustainable democracy, it was also a setback for women’s political participation. After the 2006 election, women lawmakers held 17 out of a total of 94 seats, while after the 2011 election that number had fallen to 13 out of 94 seats. Liberian Nobel laureate, Leymah Gbowee, is disappointed with women’s current political representation and said “we cannot continue to claim Africa’s first female President and continue to show the kind of results that we saw for women in the last elections.”(15) The Inter-Parliamentary Union, which monitors women’s participation in national parliaments, ranks Liberia as 101 out of 139 (190 countries share 139 ranking positions).(16) There is an obvious discrepancy between the intention and ambition of the Executive branch and the current developments when it comes to women’s participation in the political process.
In order to get more women elected to parliament, more women must stand as candidates for positions. This is, however, more challenging in Liberia than it should be. The target set by the National Election Commission’s (NEC) guidelines for political parties’ female nominations is 30%, but the NEC’s guidelines are being ignored as parties’ lack of will to meet this target is matched by the NEC’s lack of teeth to enforce it.(17) Statistics from 2011 provided by the NEC show that women only represented 11% of both Senate and Representative candidates,(18) demonstrating that the NEC’s guidelines for women candidates are being ignored by all parties.
Some argue that these guidelines are not enough; focus should not be on the number of candidates fielded, but on actual representation. At the symposium, Adama Bah Jawando of the United Muslim Women offered another opinion: that it is equally important for both genders to be represented and to participate in the governance process, and that the participation of both genders is protected in the Liberian Constitution. She went on to say that “a clause which would ensure that more than 70% of each gender is not represented in government should be included in the constitution during the reviewing process.”(19)
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems argues that the country’s executive leadership needs to be committed to gender equity and reflect that in the level of Cabinet appointments.(20) President Johnson-Sirleaf has made a point of placing women in key positions in the executive branch, but in the legislature, which is directly elected by the Liberian people, women’s numbers have lagged.(21) The executive leadership are positively committed to gender equity, but the current political structure in Liberia seems to be the major obstacle for women’s access to formal governance institutions.
Women’s peace activism did not only affect the peace process
Although President Johnson-Sirleaf won the presidency for a second term, the majority of female candidates who ran for legislative positions lost against their male opponents.(22) Liberia’s recent history of conflict and instability has created an environment that is, in many ways, hostile to women, with Liberian politics being a male-dominated business. This can be ascribed partly to the fact that Liberian society has traditionally been patriarchal in nature and women have had limited access to formal governance institutions. In the beginning of her presidency, Johnson-Sirleaf said in an interview that “women have always been leaders in traditional life. We have been striving to also be a part of elected leadership.”(23) This became a reality at the end of the Civil War. The conflict contributed to the rise of an active and effective women’s movement that helped propel women into formal governance positions with real political influence.
To understand the changed gender dynamic in formal governance, it is important to understand how women, by playing a vital role in the peace process, came to influence society. During the war, networks of community based women’s groups challenged patriarchal power relations and encouraged all parties to recognise the important and legitimate role of women in peacebuilding, as well as in politics. They built a non-violent socio-political movement and played an important role in bringing an end to Liberia’s war. Women of low and higher incomes, both Muslim and Christian, started organising a peace campaign that grew very influential as their strategy of “women’s peace activism” focused on numerical strength and mass-mobilisation, and included marches, vigils, symbolic dress and media campaigns.(24) Women’s role in Liberia’s return to peace cannot be underestimated. Most of the street protests, rallies, and demonstrations to persuade combatants to stop the bloodshed and surrender their guns in return for gainful employment were organised and coordinated by women’s networks. One of the leaders for such a network said that “we talked to them [leaders of the warring factions]. They are children to us, and we wanted this fighting to stop. We, the women, bear that pain. So we begged them—Kromah, Boley, Taylor—at different times.” (25)
Women’s peace activism did not only affect the peace process, it also impacted women’s political participation in Liberia. Their peacemaking initiatives, actions and advocacy were instrumental to the Accra Peace Agreement, signed in 2003,(26) and this involvement in the peace process made women aware of their ability to influence society. Women’s peaceful roles in conflict situations did not stop with the end of war, as they are key actors in creating an enabling environment for post-conflict peacebuilding.(27) They continued to campaign for increased representation of women in politics and worked to increase the number of women voting and participating in the democratic process.
The call for a minimum 30% representation of women in government
Gender quotas are recognised worldwide as the most effective fast-track method to achieving gender-balanced representation in parliament,(28) the core idea being to recruit women into political positions and ensure that women are more than just tokens in political life. Under the current Constitution, there is no established legal basis for seat reservation or parliamentary quota mechanisms.(29) The introduction of quota systems for women represents a qualitative jump into a policy of exact goals and means. Because of its relative efficiency, there is great hope that this system will dramatically increase women's representation. At the same time, quotas raise serious questions and, as in Liberia, strong resistance. However, women’s representation in the legislature of Liberia remains low, and the discussion about affirmative action to guarantee a minimum level of women’s political representation is nothing new.
The current lack of legislation to ensure both genders’ equal participation in the governance process in Liberia is largely due to resistance from male-dominated political parties and a lack of political will. A first attempt to change the status quo was the controversial Gender Equity Bill that was presented at the 52nd National Legislature. The bill, which called for a minimum of 30% representation of women at all levels of governance,(30) was intended to address the entrenched inequalities that exist in Liberian politics. To the disappointment of most women’s rights advocates, the Gender Equity Bill was thrown out of the national legislature, the first sign to women lawmakers that their male counterparts were unprepared to give them more access to formal political influence.(31)
The quota system places the burden of recruitment not on the individual woman, but on those who control the recruitment process. However, even the main parties have failed to meet their own voluntary commitments for 30% of their candidates to be women.(32) Observers converge in finding that the proportion of elected female representatives in the legislature following the last election could have been larger. Constraints to increasing the numbers included an internal selection process that demanded hard lobbying of party leaders and members, skills which many Liberian women have not had the opportunity to master, and the guidelines of the NEC, which made the registration fees for candidates prohibitive for many female aspirants.(33) In order to increase women’s political participation, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems suggests that political parties need to take more pragmatic actions in practicing internal party democracy by fielding more women candidates (50%) and helping such candidates with training, fundraising and campaigning.(34)
A former Senator from Maryland County, Gloria Musu Scott, confirms that the political parties, including the two largest parties in the country, the Unity Party and Congress for Democratic Change, failed to support female political candidates in the 2011 election, as they did not actively promote the women they put forward for government positions. Women were often left to fight for themselves and the only step the parties took, in many cases, was to formally register their female candidates. Influential male candidates were given preference, receiving more campaign funds, staff and support.(35)
Increasing gender balance at all levels of governance requires efforts to address political, economic, social, cultural and religious constraints. Changing the culture and attitude of the Liberian electorate will require both patience and time. The last election in 2011 was a setback for women’s representation, which declined in the bicameral legislature. The executive branch has declared an ambition to increase women’s formal political influence and representation, but the male-dominated legislature has obstructed much of the efforts.
Going forward, accelerating the processes of women's inclusion and participation in politics will probably require that some legal basis for seat reservation or parliamentary quota mechanisms is established. Gender quotas are the most effective fast-track method of increasing women’s political representation, and the current Constitutional Review Process now has the opportunity to address the entrenched inequalities that exist in Liberian politics. By including women's perspectives and addressing women's concerns in the review process, there is a possibility to challenge the current status quo, the lack of political will, as well as the structural hindrances to women’s rights to full participation and representation at all levels of governance. This is essential in strengthening the country’s democracy, because not only has women’s activism proven effective and invaluable in the peacebuilding process, but it is difficult to ignore the logic that, because women constitute half of the population, they should occupy half of the seats in the bicameral legislature.
(1) Contact Alexander Holmgren through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Claire Furphy and was edited by Nicky Berg.
(2) ‘Press release: The Nobel Prize for 2011’, Nobelprize.org, 7 October 2011, www.nobelprize.org
(3) ‘Inaugural address of H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’, 16 January 2006, http://www.emansion.gov.lr.
(4) ‘A conversation with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’, Council on Foreign Relations, 21 March 2006, www.cfr.org.
(5) ‘Liberia: How sustainable is the recovery?’, International Crisis Group Africa Report No. 177, 19 August 2011, www.crisisgroup.org.
(6) ‘Process to review the Constitution begins: Vice President Joseph N. Boakai urged Constitution Review Committee to take challenge with utmost seriousness and patriotism’, Press release from the Office of Joseph Boakai, Vice President of Liberia, 5 October 2012, www.emansion.gov.lr.
(7) ‘Women reinforce advocacy for equality’, New Democrat, 24 January 2013, http://www.newdemocratnews.com.
(9) Andrews, N.M., ‘Constitution must consider women participation’, The News, 29 January 2013, www.thenewslib.com.
(10) ‘Inaugural address of H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’, 16 January 2006, http://www.emansion.gov.lr.
(11) ‘Quota Project’, Global Database of Quotas for Women, www.quotaproject.org.
(14) The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2011 gives Liberia a score of 5.07 out of 10, ranking it 98 out of 167. See ‘The Democracy Index 2011: Democracy under stress’, Economist Intelligence Unit, 2011, www.eiu.com.
(15) William, W., ‘Slamming the girl Power: What Went Wrong For Liberia’s Women At The 2011 Polls?’, New Narratives, www.newnarratives.org.
(16) ‘Women in National Parliament: Situation as of 31 December 2012’, Inter-Parliamentary Union, www.ipu.org.
(17) Boyle, J., 2012. Women of Liberia – find your voices: Enhancing women’s representation in Liberian Parliament. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Lund, Sweden, Lund University.
(19) ‘Women reinforce advocacy for equality’, New Democrat, 24 January 2013, http://www.newdemocratnews.com.
(20) Cole, S., ‘Increasing women’s political participation in Liberia challenges and potential lessons from India, Rwanda and South Africa’, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 19 August 2011, http://www.ifes.org.
(21) Williams, W., ‘Slamming the girl power: What went wrong for Liberia’s women at the 2011 polls?’, New Narratives, www.newnarratives.org.
(23) Malveaux, J., 2006. A woman shall lead them. Essence, 3, pp. 94-96.
(24) Press, R.M., ‘Peaceful resistance in contemporary Africa: Non-violent social movements In Kenya, Sierra Leone and Liberia’, A paper presented at the September 2-5, 2010 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., 20 August 2010, http://papers.ssrn.com.
(25) Badmus, I.A., 2009. Explaining women’s roles in the West African tragic triplet: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire in comparative perspective. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 1(3), pp. 808-839.
(26) Svensson, K., 2008. Women hold up half the sky: Peace and security lessons from Liberia. Institute for Security Studies: African Security Review, 17(4), pp. 178-183.
(27) Badmus, I.A., 2009, Explaining women’s roles in the West African tragic triplet: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire in comparative perspective. Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences, 1(3), pp. 808-839.
(28) ‘Quota Project’, Global Database of Quotas for Women, www.quotaproject.org.
(29) Cole, S., ‘Increasing women’s political participation in Liberia challenges and potential lessons from India, Rwanda and South Africa’, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 19 August 2011, http://www.ifes.org.
(31) Jallah, S., ‘Women forge partnership with Liberian media’, African Standard, 19 December 2012, www.africanstandardnews.org; Williams, W., ‘Slamming the girl power: What went wrong for Liberia’s women at the 2011 polls?, New Narratives, www.newnarratives.org.
(32) Kellow, T., 2010. Women, elections and violence in West Africa: Assessing women’s political participation in Liberia and Sierra Leone. International Alert: London.
(33) Fuest, V., 2008. This is the time to get in front: Changing roles and opportunities for women in Liberia. African Affairs, 107(427), pp. 201-224.
(34) Cole, S., ‘Increasing women’s political participation in Liberia challenges and potential lessons from India, Rwanda and South Africa’, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, 19 August 2011, http://www.ifes.org.
(35) Williams, W., ‘Slamming the girl power: What went wrong for Liberia’s women at the 2011 polls?’, New Narratives, www.newnarratives.org.