Rural Women Step up Political Participation
Liberia is on its way towards the midterm senatorial elections in December. Among the aspiring and selected candidates are unfortunately very few women. Women’s participation in politics and other decision-making processes is still lagging. But some people are stepping up to change this, determined to ensure all Liberians, male and female, are part of its development.
The Liberia Peacebuilding Office (PBO) and ZOA Liberia are working on a peacebuilding project, funded by Irish Aid, titled “Strengthening Inclusive Civic and Political Participation and promoting constructive pre-election campaigning for Sustained Peace in Liberia’. The project has the overall objective of increasing inclusive and equitable civic and political participation for women, people living with disabilities and other marginalized groups. The project focuses on Grand Cape Mount, Margibi, Montserrado, Bong, Nimba and Sinoe Counties.
Many years ago, women involvement in political leadership, especially for rural women, was not a priority. Women taking on political leadership roles in the counties was highly controversial. Women did not push to exercise their right to political participation, but instead supported men into political leadership positions. But times are changing and women are rising up to take their place.
Liberia is now at a critical stage in terms of developing the country’s emerging democracy and maintaining the peace and stability necessary to tackle extreme poverty and inequality. For this to happen, development and political decision-making processes need to be inclusive. This is not yet the case, as less than 10% of parliamentary seats are currently held by women, and there is only one woman in the senate. In order to understand the formal and informal barriers which hinder female participation in political and civic life, the ZOA/PBO team has developed a programme with a unique appreciative inquiry approach: Community visits and focus group discussions, with the help of drama’s and songs help women to identify, address and overcome some of the barriers. The ZOA and PBO team holds meetings with women’s groups, key actors, disabled groups and identifies drivers and blockers across the counties. Each selected group of rural women is unique and determines their own way forward within the project.
These barriers are mentioned by the women that have been identified as success stories, such as Madam Jamiyatu Konneh Watson, who was voted Paramount Chief of Porkpa District in Grand Cape Mount. She states: “This job is not easy, especially being a woman. There are men everywhere creating barriers so that you cannot succeed, but you have to be determined and strong no matter the situation.” Lack of education for girls and the sustained traditional and religious values and gender norms are also mentioned as key barriers for women to participate fully in civic and political life.
Considering how values and traditional beliefs differ from county to county, the programme adapts to the local context. For example, Grand cape mount is a county that attaches much value to its religious and traditional norms and beliefs. The traditional, sometimes religious, values that govern citizens lives are still placing men at the top of leadership and placing women at a subordinate level to men. So the activities and discussions that the team holds there reflect these realities.
In the meetings with different actors and groups, the role of men is also discussed. In order to encourage women participation, it is important to call on men in the counties to serve as ‘drivers’ who support women and their decisions to take on political responsibilities. Women involvement in civic leadership and political gains will be enhanced if they are supported by men. Men can be considered as powerful allies, with much experience in civic and political leadership.
Liberia needs more and deeper civic engagements, and thus needs to allow women and people with disabilities to have more active roles in civic and political life experience. This helps to enhance the unity and tolerance among community members as well as creating a positive environment. This is also a crucial precondition to promote constructive pre-election campaigning, which is the second pillar of the ZOA / PBO programme.
As main drivers of the women empowerment in the counties, women groups in towns and villages have plenty of potential. The programme is building on this through trainings and discussions. Most women and youth groups agree that despite the many factors making it difficult for women to step up to roles of leadership in the county, progress is being made. The programme showcases and reinforces positive success stories, such as the election of the two female Paramount Chiefs in Grand Cape Mount, in Garwula and Porkpa Districts. These inspiring women show that it can be done and encourage their fellow community members and other peers. As Amiyata Konneh Watson says: “I want to tell every woman who is aspiring for political office not to be afraid to join the race!.”