Liberia is in the public spotlight. Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women’s peace activist and the director of an AJWS grantee organization, along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both won the Nobel Peace Prize. We have much to celebrate. But there is still much work to be done.
On October 11th, Liberians went to the polls for their second democratic elections since the end of a devastating 14-year civil war. While enormous attention has been paid to increasing people’s participation in the elections, there has been little commentary about Liberian women’s struggle to seize this key moment and make their voices truly count. A proposed bill to increase women’s political representation has sparked unexpected controversy and languished in Liberia’s senate.
These are the facts: Liberian women hold only seven percent of seats in their national legislature, five percent in leadership positions in the media and seventeen percent in the executive departments of the government. Liberian women organized a protest in August 2011, urging their country’s senate to pass a bill to redress this imbalance in exchange for their votes. But there is more to this story than what appears to be political blackmail.
In May 2010, the Liberian Women’s Legislative Caucus first introduced a bill entitled the Gender Equity in Politics Act, proposing that women occupy at least 30 percent of all national elected offices and leadership positions in political parties. About a month later, male legislators defeated the bill on the grounds that it violates the country’s constitution, which provides that all Liberian citizens have equal opportunities for work and employment, regardless of their gender or religion. In other words, they thought the bill discriminated against men. Other critics of the bill deemed it selfish and lazy; they qualified the women’s initiative as “counterproductive to Liberia’s fledging democratic undertaking” and said it would potentially lead other groups such as people with disabilities to call for political representation, too.
Affirmative action is not the solution for every situation of injustice. But it is necessary when 50 percent of a country’s population has no say in the policies that affect their lives.
Under customary law, Liberian women are excluded from owning land, accessing education and holding jobs. We need Liberian women in government to change this.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, Liberian women will continue to fight hard to get the bill passed. To appease the bill’s opponents, Liberian women changed the proposed name from “Gender Equity in Politics” to “Equal Representation in Politics.” They are demanding that no gender should have a representation of less than 30 percent or more than 70 percent in the national legislature.
To learn more about the role of Liberian women in ending Liberia’s civil war, please check out the documentary entitled Pray the Devil Back to Hell, produced by Abigail Disney and scheduled to start airing on PBS on October 18, 2011.