How Sir­leaf has failed women in Liberia

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

WHEN Liberi­ans go to the polls next month, there will be a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of men on the bal­lot pa­pers. Only 163 of 1 026 ap­proved can­di­dates – just 16% – in these pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions are women. This rep­re­sents only a mar­ginal in­crease since 2005 and 2011, when women ac­counted for 14% and 11% of can­di­dates, re­spec­tively.

Ellen John­son Sir­leaf – who, 12 years ago, be­came the first woman to be elected head of state in any African coun­try – has of­ten been hailed as a fem­i­nist icon. But the poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in elec­tions is as much her fault as it is a re­flec­tion of Liberia’s acutely pa­tri­ar­chal po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Her pres­i­dency has served the in­ter­ests of a small, elite group of women and men in pol­i­tics. It has up­held the coun­try’s long-stand­ing pa­tri­ar­chal norms. She has dis­tanced her­self from the very move­ment that first got her elected, de­cry­ing fem­i­nism as “ex­trem­ism”.

Sir­leaf ’s brand of femoc­racy – a term coined by Nige­rian fem­i­nist scholar Amina Mama – has se­verely sti­fled women’s po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Mama, whose re­search fo­cused on African first ladies as femocrats, makes an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween fem­i­nism and femoc­racy.

She ar­gues that while fem­i­nism at­tempts to shat­ter the po­lit­i­cal glass ceil­ing, femoc­racy de­lib­er­ately keeps it in­tact. This re­mains true even though, some decades on from her orig­i­nal writ­ing, the con­ti­nent can now boast of fe­male pres­i­dents like Sir­leaf and for­mer Malaw­ian head of state Joyce Banda.

Sir­leaf has been con­spic­u­ously silent about bol­ster­ing women’s roles in pol­i­tics, apart from a re­cent pub­lic state­ment in which she vowed to cam­paign ac­tively for fe­male can­di­dates in these elec­tions.

There have been some leg­isla­tive ef­forts to in­volve more women in Liberia’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, with min­i­mal to no in­put from Sir­leaf.

A 2014 elec­tions law amend­ment en­cour­aged po­lit­i­cal par­ties to in­crease their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in lead­er­ship roles. Yet Sir­leaf ’s own Unity Party – with only 10 women out of 58 can­di­dates on its ros­ter – ranks be­low smaller, less prom­i­nent par­ties in fronting fe­male can­di­dates this year. The United Peo­ple’s Party, for in­stance, has 17 fe­male can­di­dates out of a to­tal of 64.

Else­where on the con­ti­nent Rwanda, Sene­gal and South Africa have im­ple­mented gen­der equity bills specif­i­cally to pro­pel women to high pub­lic of­fice. In 2010 the Liberian women’s leg­isla­tive cau­cus spon­sored an act which man­dated that women should oc­cupy at least 30% of po­lit­i­cal party lead­er­ship. The act would also have set up a trust fund to fi­nance women’s elec­toral cam­paigns. Sir­leaf did not ac­tively sup­port the pro­posed law and it was never rat­i­fied.

She has also failed women when it comes to her own high-level po­lit­i­cal ap­point­ments. Only four of her cur­rent 21 cabi­net of­fi­cials are women – and none of them oc­cupy strate­gic min­istries like de­fence, fi­nance, ed­u­ca­tion or pub­lic works.

Nepo­tism has been a prob­lem on her watch, too: Sir­leaf has ap­pointed three of her sons to top gov­ern­ment po­si­tions.

This is not to say that Sir­leaf’s two terms in of­fice have left women com­pletely high and dry.

Her ad­min­is­tra­tion has built or ren­o­vated hundreds of mar­kets across the coun­try for thou­sands of fe­male in­for­mal traders called “mar­ket women”.

She has also in­sti­tuted poli­cies to pro­tect women and girls from male ag­gres­sion. Un­der her rule, Liberia has im­ple­mented the most com­pre­hen­sive anti-rape law in Africa. A fast-track spe­cial court has been es­tab­lished to deal specif­i­cally with gen­der-based vi­o­lence.

Un­for­tu­nately, a decade af­ter it was opened, the court re­mains only in the cap­i­tal city, Mon­rovia.

This makes it in­ac­ces­si­ble to most Liberian women. And the per­son who heads the court, Ser­ena Gar­la­wolu, has gone on record en­dors­ing fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion. Gar­la­wolu says the prac­tice “is not a vi­o­la­tion of any­one’s rights cul­tur­ally”. Liberian women’s rights ac­tivists pe­ti­tioned to crim­i­nalise the harm­ful pro­ce­dure. But the pro­posed ban was omit­ted from a re­cently passed Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Act.

Sir­leaf ’s record over the past 12 years demon­strates that gen­der equity is not mag­i­cally achieved when a woman oc­cu­pies a coun­try’s high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice. This is borne out by count­less other ex­am­ples, in­clud­ing Mar­garet Thatcher and Theresa May in Eng­land, Indira Gandhi in India, Dilma Rouss­eff in Brazil and Ju­lia Gil­lard in Aus­tralia.

The in­ter­na­tional me­dia and Sir­leaf ’s sup­port­ers con­tinue to hoist her up as the ma­tron of women’s rights in Africa. How­ever, she does not de­serve this ti­tle. The ev­i­dence of this will be glar­ingly ob­vi­ous in the Oc­to­ber elec­tion re­sults.

Leader to blame for their poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Oc­to­ber polls

Rob­tel Nea­jai Pai­ley, re­search as­so­ciate, Univer­sity of Ox­ford, and Korto Reeves Williams, a Liberian fem­i­nist and a strate­gic civil so­ci­ety leader in Liberia and the sub­re­gion.

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