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As Liberia Bids Farewell to Johnson Sirleaf, Women’s Rights Lag Behind

Liberians will vote today to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s successor. But progress on women’s political representation has been slow under the country’s first female president, and justice remains elusive for women who have suffered sexual violence.

Written by Katherina Thomas Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first women to be elected head of state in Africa, but she has a chequered record on women’s rights.Photo by Glenna Gordon/AFP/Getty Images

MONROVIA, Liberia – When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf began her first term as president of Liberia in 2005, she also became the first elected female head of state in Africa. At the time, many of her female supporters thought her election would provide an automatic boost for the rights of women and girls.

But 12 years later, women are still significantly underrepresented in politics, policy and leadership positions in Liberia. And while there have been some steps forward, expected gains in women’s rights have not materialized, despite Johnson Sirleaf sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for championing women’s rights.

While African countries such as Rwanda and Senegal have passed gender parity acts for women in politics, Liberia’s parliament is only 12 percent female. Under Johnson Sirleaf, the country has failed to meet its goal to have women occupying at least 30 percent of all national elected offices and leadership positions in political parties.

“We thought that because Ellen is a woman, all of our problems would just automatically be solved,” said Ansahta Garnett, the administrative director of the Gbowee Peace Foundation, created by Liberian Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee.

“Although I think the president is a strong woman, I don’t think she’s a feminist.” Johnson Sirleaf herself has said in the past that she does not identify with feminism.

Giving the Government Back to Men

As Johnson Sirleaf prepares to step down, Liberians are going to the polls, facing a choice of some 20 candidates for her successor. The likely frontrunners include vice president Joseph Boakai, former international footballer George Weah, former Coca Cola executive Alex Cummings and lawyer Charles Brumskine. Only one female candidate, the philanthropist MacDella Cooper, is running, although as a newcomer to Liberia’s political landscape, her chances of success are likely to be slim.

“People are a little bit afraid that we’re now giving the government back to men, and we want to make sure that our interests are still addressed,” Garnett said.

On Monday, Cooper joined 100 other women dressed in white at a jamboree on the outskirts of Monrovia, praying, singing and dancing for peaceful elections. Many of those who attended had previously featured in the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” – the story of the Christian and Muslim women who campaigned to end Liberia’s 14-year civil war through public prayer.

“I first came here to pray during the war, and came back during the last election and the Ebola outbreak,” said Hawa Harry, an elderly member of the group. “As women we want to see this country improve for us, but first we want peace.”

Presidential candidate MacDella Cooper (second left) dances and sings with women at a peace rally in Monrovia ahead of today’s presidential vote. (Photo by Kate Thomas)

Liberian voters, 49 percent of whom are women, will also elect candidates to parliamentary positions. Among the female candidates is Etta Juah Kpui Nasser, who is running in the county of Grand Bassa, where former gender minister Julia Duncan-Cassell is also seeking a seat.

Widespread Sexual Violence

The rate of sexual and gender-based violence remains high in Liberia. Amnesty International has estimated that rape was the second most commonly reported crime in Liberia in the first half of 2016.

Although Johnson Sirleaf has established a fast-track special court for sexual crimes against women, on October 3 this year the Liberian senate amended the rape law, downgrading the crime from a non-bailable offense to a bailable one. A statement from the senate said, “Punishment provided in the original rape law appears to be excessive.”

The move has angered women’s rights activists such as Nelly Cooper, who heads a civil society organization, West Point Women for Health and Development, in Liberia’s poorest slum.

“Since Ellen took power as the president, there has been more focus on women’s issues, but men have their own agenda,” Cooper said.

“When we first started working on women’s rights issues in 2002, we saw up to seven cases of rape per day in this community. That number has dropped now, but we think it is simply because people don’t report cases to the police for fear of stigma.”

The amendment to the rape law is likely only to worsen accountability. Amnesty International says that just 2 percent of the sexual and gender-based violence cases reported in 2015 resulted in a criminal conviction.

Some Gains Made

There have, however, been some gains since 2005. Planned Parenthood told News Deeply that one-stop centers for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence have opened in almost half of Liberia’s 15 counties, and more women are employed in formal, salaried jobs than ever before in the postwar years.

And on a less tangible level, Johnson Sirleaf’s status as president and Nobel laureate has inspired girls and young women to aim high.

Sallay Kamara, who at 15 is still too young to vote by three years, joined women of all ages at Monday’s peace gathering. She says she wants to follow in the president’s footsteps.

“My ma has always told me that because we have a female president, I, too, can do well,” she said. “Maybe I’ll go into politics, maybe I’ll become a medical doctor.

“Women are just as important as men.”

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