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
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