Liberia: Winning Elected Positions; a Long Shot for Women: Are Things About to Change?
Monrovia – In 2016, the lower house of the National Legislature passed the Equal Representation and Participation Bill, creating five seats for women. The passage came toward the tail end of the term of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman to lead an African nation, and Africa’s oldest republic. The bill never made it on the floor of the Senate and then President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf never got to sign it into handbill.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Nearly four years later, women eyeing political office in Africa’s oldest republic are still struggling to fill gaps and win representation in a male-dominated game of politics spurring a quagmire that continues to keep women in the doldrums of modern-day ostracization from representative democracy.
Nine Women Likely to Contests
According to the World Bank, only one in nine seats in the legislature are held by women and the country ranks 40th out of 54 African countries for the number of women in parliament, and 149th out of 191 worldwide.
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), women’s representation in politics has made substantial progress in sub-Saharan Africa where the share of female parliamentarians increased to 22.3 percent in 2016, from 9.8 percent in 1995. In Liberia, however, the percentage remains dismal.
Ahead of this year’s Senatorial elections many are hoping that the trend changes.
So, far only nine women are known to be harboring ambitions for a run in the Senate: They are Dorothy Tooman, an Independent eyeing the race in Bong County, Edith Gongloe Weh, also an independent, eyeing the Nimba race and Felicia F. D. Duncan, is likely to run on the Movement for One Liberia ticket for the Grand Gedeh Senatorial race.
Also said to have interest in the upcoming elections are: Grace Scotland Brima, eyeing the Sinoe elections as an Independent, Hawa Bropleh(Movement for One Liberia), in Cape Mount, Kula Fofanna, who contested the special representatives’ elections in Grand Cape Mount,
Isreal E. king, Montserrado as an Independent, Rosalind Sneh(Liberty Party), Grand Kru and Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence, an incumbent looking to maintain her Senatorial seat in Grand Bassa.
Movement Looking to Push Representation
Ms. MacDella Cooper, who contested the Presidency in 2017 and last year’s Montserrado County Senatorial elections recently organized the MOL in hopes of creating a pathway for more women representation in the legislature. “I always say that Equal means Equal. The quest for more women engagement and involvement in politics is something that I’m very passionate about. This is why I ran for President in 2017 and the Senatorial elections in 2019.”
Cooper says her experience in the past elections prompted her to push for more women in politics. “I think it is long overdue and it is time for Liberia to wake up and catch up with the rest of the world. More and more countries like Rwanda are encouraging women participation in legislature and politics. I hope that we can begin to do that in the upcoming Senatorial elections and beyond.”
But even in instances where strong women made a play for the high stakes, they face challenges.
Last August, Telia Urey, running on the ticket of the opposition All Liberia Party, part of the collaboration of Political Parties(CPP) in the District No. 15, Montserrado County election, came under attack and nearly lost her life at the hands of her attackers believed to come from ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) in the politically tense district.
President George Manneh Weah had told a campaign rally that under his rule the Ureys will not win election here.
Urey’s District 15 Debacle
Following Ms. Urey’s complaint of elections irregularities, the National Elections Commission (NEC) ordered a rerun in six polling places in the district, instead of the a rerun of the entire district as earlier requested.She accepted NEC’s decision but the ruling CDC is against the rerun, as it claims to have won the votes.
In the end, after a rerun, she lost to Abu Kamara.
Months after her loss, Urey says, women are unfortunately highly unrepresented in politics in Liberia. “We represent over 50% of the population and therefore our perspectives need to be factored in our national political discourse for our democracy to function effectively.”
She says the unique experiences of Liberian women puts them in a good position to shape laws, policies and processes for the benefit of the general population. “In other democracies, there are positive correlations between the number of women in legislature and the prioritizing of health, education and other social services.”
Urey says Liberia can benefit from women participation in this regard. “We must transform the power paradigm in Liberia and give us, women, more decision making power in all areas- but most especially in politics, where decisions being made directly affect our lives. Where things stand today in Liberia, law and decision making are predominantly male influenced. More women in the legislature means that more women will be making decisions that impact our future. This is true inclusion.”
“I think it is long overdue and it is time for Liberia to wake up and catch up with the rest of the world. More and more countries like Rwanda are encouraging women participation in legislature and politics. I hope that we can begin to do that in the upcoming Senatorial elections and beyond.”– MacDella Cooper, Political Leader, Movement for One Liberia (MOL)
In a speech celebrating International Women’s Day in March, Senator Karnga-Lawrence, the only female in the Liberian Senate and the den, as I always say – and the only female political leader in the Coalition of Political Parties, recalled that when she rand for the Senate eight years ago, she had no political experience.
In order to become the first female Senator of Grand Bassa County, she says, she had to overcome fears and hesitation. “I was walking a road no woman had travelled in Grand Bassa. And yet, I felt the presence and support of women from all over the Country encouraging me to continue to walk along the path! I felt that although the experience was new to me, I was not running alone. Thousands of women who were not even from Grand Bassa were running with me, and I was running for them.”
Before her death, in 2018, Geraldine Doe-Sherif, was the only other female Senator.
For Senator Karnga-Lawrence, being the only woman is a badge of honor. “I wear these “Only Woman” tags proudly, honorably and humbly. However, it makes me feel lonely! The women and girls of Liberia who are at least half of the population of Liberia deserve more than one female political leader of a major political party, or only one female senator.”
Gender Inclusion Rare
Gender inclusion in Liberia had been rare since independence. Over the last decade however, the tide appears to be turning, albeit slowly.
Sirleaf broke the barrier when she won the presidency in 2005 and Jewel Howard Taylor followed, becoming the first female Vice President. But even for those who has broken the glass ceiling, staying in the fray is often complicated.
In March, addressing a seminar on the way forward for an enforceable gender quota and strategies for implementing the elections laws, Vice President Howard Taylor stressed that without a good financial backing, women will find it difficult to remain in politics.
“There’s an important lack of additional financial resources to fully capacitate female politicians and I’m not talking about getting us on the radio, I am talking about money to campaign on the ground; because we can deliver our goods on the ground and not about thirty T-shirts alone,” the Vice President said.
Recently, a Civil Society Group of women led by women’s rights groups and networks released a communique calling for reform in the New Elections Law Section 4.5 (b) and (c).
Given that political parties are dominated by men, the reform seeks to have inclusion of at least 30% women in political parties and coalitions’ candidate listings and party leadership.
The Liberian Constitution provides the right for every qualified Liberian without gender discrimination to participate in national politics by contesting for a public position; nevertheless, women have been inactive perhaps on grounds that the patriarchal culture does not attach much significance on women leadership. This culture has existed for centuries until the glass-ceiling was broken when former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ascended to the highest seat of the land in 2006 setting the first history. This has also been followed by the ascendancy of Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor.
Critics of the proposal say, while the Constitution gives every Liberian the right to contest in an election for public positions, it is up to that person, male or female, to make their own case.
Amid the lingering debate, ceiling breakers like Senator Karnga-Lawrence say it is about respect. “Women no longer just belong in the kitchen. We belong in the living room, in the boardrooms, in the offices, in the legislature, and in the ministries and agencies. And we belong in all of these places not as a token from our brothers and husbands and male friends but as our capacities have qualified us to also be there. Women are better leaders, Better mangers, Better politicians, Better caregivers, Women can do what men can do, and we can do it better.