Monrovia – Exactly fifty years after Emma Shannon Walser broke the glass ceiling to become the first woman to become a judge in Liberia, and decades after Elizabeth Collins became the first woman elected to the Senate, representing Maryland County, women in Liberia are still struggling for a seat at the table of national politics.
The recent marathon play aimed at denying Madam Botoe Kanneh her seat in the Senate from Gparpolu County showed just how draining it has been for women, eyeing a share of the male-dominated political space.
After weeks of legal wrangling, Kanneh emerged from the Supreme Court last week victorious. The Supreme Court of Liberia ordered the Board of Commissioners of the National Elections Commission to announce the results of the Special Senatorial Election held in that county.
Ready to Challenge Men
For Kanneh, the end of a long and hard-fought journey was long overdue. “It is a big [proud moment] for
the women of Liberia to get a second female senator in the 54th Legislature. I believe that it is not only a proud [moment], but it is bringing more steps to the women of Liberia, that we will not be afraid of men this time around; that we are facing the challenge and we are ready to challenge the men.”
Kanneh’s victory has energized women throughout Liberia amid lingering debate and push for more and more women to be included in the national discourse.
Ms. MacDella Cooper, Political Leader of the Movement for One Liberia has been leading the charge in recent months, driving the narrative and hoping to change the dynamics regarding women’s participation in national politics.
Women Doing Incredibly, Amazing Things
Cooper, a former Presidential and Montserrado County Senatorial candidate, says women deserve to have more presence in both houses of the national legislature.
“Women across Liberia have been doing incredibly amazing things for our communities and nation at large but we have all been working in silence.”
Cooper says a lot of women advocates or advocacy groups have been uniting around a particular issue – like ending violence against women and girls, maternal health, child welfare, sexual and reproductive rights, education, political participation, women’s leadership etc.
Says Cooper: “Many issues affecting our lives are not being put on the national agenda. Some of these issue where being discuss ceremoniously but there are no real actions taking to tackle the issues that are important to us. We have come to realization that issues affecting our lives are not going to be dealt with if we the women are not represented in equal numbers.”
In a bid to elevate the issue, Cooper recently launched what she describes as The Lappa Revolution. “The idea behind the LAPPA Revolution was go get all the women of Liberia to come together and tackle our issues together,” she told FrontPageAfrica on a recent weekday. “We the women of liberia decided to work together and find solution to not only our problems but the problems of our nation.”
A primary reason for the revolution, Cooper says is to bring issues affecting women to the forefront of the political burner. “In 2020, violence against women and girls was in the Spotlight in part because of the Covid pandemic and saw a lot of anti-rape/anti-SGBV activism. Then we seemed to have reached a tipping point with the horrific violence against women in the Senatorial election, especially in Gbarpolu.”
Cooper asserts that because the presumptive Senator elect in Gbarpolu county was a female, the traditional leaders did the unthinkable by putting out the country devil to restrict Botoe Kanneh’s right to contest and from her female supporters’ right to free and fair participation in the election. “There are of course allegations of rape and other human rights violations against her campaigners.”
Cooper says it is not the first time that men in the position of authority have used violence against women in politics and elections, but it was the most public and most shocking case to date. “It was also so different from the type of electoral violence the public are used to because it was so obviously an abuse of power by men who were sending a clear message that politics is not for women – we are to stay in “our place. With this, we have found a renewed unity of purpose in the Lappa Revolution.”
Men Control the Power
Asked why she thinks it has taken so long and why women have to fight so hard to get a seat at the table, Cooper says it all boils down to power. “The simple answer is one word: power. Men most often have power over women – they exercise that in the home, making decisions about the education and opportunities of girls, or in having authority over where a woman can go, with whom.”
While women and girls are primarily responsible for the home and children, the MOL leader says, men are largely free to form associations and gain experience in community and student leadership, often pathways to political leadership later in life.
She adds: “Men also exercise power economically in the political system, often with cash violence.”
Cooper also argues that the laws and other “rules of the game” also favor men. “Men have more powerful networks and connections than women. They meet and make decisions at hours and in spaces that exclude women. In political parties, women are also often marginalized in women’s wings, with many women facing sexual harassment and other forms of gendered discrimination and violence. In society too, there are specific barriers to women’s entry into politics, including negative stereotypes about women’s leadership. In many communities, voters – women and men – often discriminate against female candidates, setting standards for them that they do not set for male candidates.”
Cooper says it is sad that in these modern times, men are determined to hold on to power. “They do not want to give up power nor do they want to share it, especially those men that do not see women as equal to them. But we have to fight so hard to get a seat at the table not because of individual men, but because we are fighting an entire system of male dominance – where the laws, policies, education, economy, gender norms and roles operate largely to the benefit of men. We’ve yet to convince men and also some women that men and women sharing power benefits everyone. When men and women make decisions together, everybody benefits.”
Throughout Liberia’s rugged political history, women like Collins, the first female Senator, Walser, the first judge the likes of Angie Brooks-Randolph, first female president of the United Nations General Assembly and former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have paved the way for others. Following that trail however, appears to be eclipsed by a sea of uncertainty and a male-dominated society unwilling to allow women at the table.
The likes of Walser did not just show up at the table but she did make an impact and secure her legacy.
Walser Left her Mark
Appointed as a judge to the Montserrado County judicial circuit in 1971 by President William R. Tolbert, Walser built a reputation as a progressive judge. While it was customary for judges to decide cases based on instructions from the president, Walser gained a reputation for deciding cases strictly on merit and the law.
For example, Walser publicly refused to sentence an indigenous man to a death sentence because she argued he had been poorly represented by a state lawyer, leading to a Supreme Court finding in Republic of Liberia v. Emma Shannon-Walser, 27 LLR 274 (1978) that the constitutional right to counsel includes the right to competent counsel. In 1975, she was the head of a special committee appointed to study all laws affecting women’s rights.
In April 1979, Walser also challenged the government’s detention of opposition leaders alleged to have instigated the rice riots, a precursor to the 1980 coup. Despite her heroics, however, she was removed from the bench in 1979 by a joint resolution of the conservative Legislature. At the time, five hundred Liberian women, including Olubanke King Akerele, petitioned and protested the action, to no avail. She later worked for Amnesty International and moved to Switzerland where she currently resides.
For Cooper, not only is equal gender representation the right thing to do for Liberia, it is just and democratic thing to do. “Women are half the population, “equal and proportional representation of women is also the smart thing to do because it will benefit our communities and our country as a whole.”