Why Ellen John­son Sir­leaf is no fem­i­nist icon

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 Eng

The Herald (Zimbabwe) - - Analysis & Opinion - Rob­tel Nea­jai Pai­ley Cor­re­spon­dent

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 per­cent — in these pres­i­den­tial and leg­isla­tive elec­tions are women.

This rep­re­sents only a mar­ginal in­crease since 2005 and 2011, when women ac­counted for 14 per­cent and 11 per­cent 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 ac­tu­ally 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 pub­licly 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 women pres­i­dents like Sir­leaf and for­mer Malaw­ian head of state Joyce Banda.

Women in Liberian pol­i­tics 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 women can­di­dates out of a to­tal 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 per­cent 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. A few suc­cesses, but… 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 an­ti­rape 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.

Full ar­ti­cle on www.her­ald.co.zw

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