SLAMMING THE GIRL POWER: What Went Wrong for Liberia’s Women at the 2011 Polls?

By FrontPage Africa editor and New Narratives fellow Wade Williams

Gloria Musu Scott sits behind her desk at the Capitol Building.  The senator from Maryland County is in the process of clearing her office to return to her former life as a lawyer.  She is among many women who lost their seats following our country’s November elections.

Although Liberia’s “Iron Lady”, incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, won the presidency for a second term, the majority of female candidates who ran for legislative positions lost against their male opponents.

Women lawmakers comprised 18 percent of the previous legislature, with 17 women out of a total of 94 seats.  When representatives took their seats this week, that number had fallen to 13 out of 97 seats, about 13 percent.  Proposed new laws on issues of concern to women had trouble even getting the support needed to be put to a vote last time.  Things look even worse now.

As the dust settles on the elections, many female candidates who lost, including members of the legislature like Scott, say that equal representation between women and men in government is still a long way from becoming reality.

Senator Scott says part of the problem was the failure of political parties to support female political candidates.  She says that the parties, including the Unity Party and Congress for Democratic Change, did not actively promote the women they put forward for government positions, leading to the women’s dismal performance in the elections.

“The political parties did not really take women seriously, so you had less women even canvassing,” says Senator Scott.  “Some of them had to go and become independent candidates.  Some of them had to join other parties.  But the other parties you went to, they don’t know you and the structure is not there to really support you.  So we were just floundering.”

At the political party level, Scott says, women were often left to fight for themselves.  In many cases, the only step the parties took was to formally register their female candidates.  Influential male candidates were given preference because they received more campaign funds, staff and support.  Scott says that she and her female colleagues feel let down by their parties as a result.

“Even from the primaries, they ran into serious trouble,” says Scott. “The whole primary thing was geared to kick them out.”

According to Scott, parties never really believed women had a chance to win and so may have put female candidates on the ballot simply to appease parts of the public calling for more women in public office.

Historically speaking, the issue of women even participating in politics is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Liberian women earned the right to vote in the late 1950s – late compared with other countries.  But since this suffrage milestone, they have not been able to capture large representation in the country’s legislature.

This runs counter to the international perception of Liberia as a leader in women’s rights in Africa.  Liberia has Africa’s first woman president.  Women, led by Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee, played a leading role in bringing peace.  President Johnson Sirleaf has made a point of placing women in key positions in the executive branch.  But in the legislature, directly elected by the Liberian people, women’s numbers have lagged.  Liberia is far behind some other countries in Africa where the numbers of women legislators are nearly equal to men.

Women voters themselves are also at fault for not supporting women candidates in the elections, says Jewel Howard Taylor, senior senator for Bong County.  She says many Liberian women were more concerned about inconsequential issues like whether a female candidate fixed her hair properly or wore the latest fashion, how she could not afford a better car, or why she was not married.

“You might have a woman in the race and you’ll be surprised the women giving their votes to a male person instead of that woman,” says Senator Taylor.

Unlike in many countries with poor representation by women, voting between the genders was fairly equal in this election and last.  Of the 1,798,930 registered voters, women voters make up nearly 49 percent while men voters make up about 51 percent. That’s one of the highest turnouts of women in an African election.

Liberian men as well as women in Monrovia criticized women candidates’ failure to forge a united front in the elections.

“They prefer supporting the men than other women,” says Musa Dolly, a graduate student in accounting at the University of Liberia. “Complacency, pride, bigotry from some of the women – normally we observe in Liberia that women just don’t really appreciate each other.”

But others say women lost because they took for granted the support of other women in their constituencies and did little to reach out for their votes.

“They live in their areas but they don’t go out to mobilize other women,” says Garmai Sengbe, a registered voter and social worker from rural Montserrado County.  “Some of them were so pompous.  That is why the women did not vote for them.”

Many women’s activists are now looking to President Johnson Sirleaf to increase the number of women in the executive branch to make up for the lower numbers in the legislature.  But Senator Scott predicts the reduction of women in the legislature will mean that policy issues relating to women and children will largely go ignored.

“We, [the women], don’t have the numbers,” Scott says.  “That’s the reality with the legislature; you need the numbers. So the less women in the legislature, the less legislations will be passed to protect women.”

In the 52nd Legislature, women legislators found it difficult to get the support of their male colleagues in passing so-called women’s laws.  Bills dealing with issues like rape and property rights for women were often tossed aside.

Reaction to the proposed Gender Equity Bill was the first sign to women lawmakers that their male counterparts were unprepared to give them more of the political pie.  The bill, which called for a minimum 30 percent representation of women in government, was intended to address the entrenched inequalities that exist in Liberian politics.

Disappointing most women’s rights advocates, the Gender Equity Bill was thrown out of the national legislature on March 8, 2011, which ironically happened to be International Women’s Day.  Scott says this delivered a big blow and signaled how women and children issues are going to be handled by a legislature dominated by men.

“In most relationships, men are in the position of power; in most instances, women are the victims – they and their children,” Scott says.  “Their children become illegitimate children when the man decides you are not up to what he expects of a woman and marries somebody else.  You and your children are outside.”

Women’s rights advocates say that many men in Liberia believe that they should call the political shots like they control the home.   They say, as a result, these men view the ascendency of women to key political positions as a possible threat.

“First thing, many more men wanted to come into the legislature,” says Taylor.  “They see it as their domain, and it is part of what they believe they should be doing.  And they think women should be content with the presidency, so the issue of women empowerment should now be slowed down.”

The outcomes of these elections have reignited talk of bringing back the Gender Equity Bill.  But some male voters and lawmakers alike want to keep the bill off the table.

Ansu Donzo, a Liberian freelance journalist, says he does not support the idea of giving more power to women than they already have and opposes the Gender Equity Bill.

“I do not even dream of supporting such a thing,” says Donzo. “I do not even dream of having equal rights with my wife or anyone from the opposite sex.”

Like many of his male peers, Donzo contends that many women politicians were given a chance in the 52nd legislature but failed to live up to the expectations of those who elected them.

Men like Donzo still say that passing laws in favor of rights for women and children will mean giving these groups more power – something which is viewed as unacceptable in the African culture.  Thus, keeping women legislators at a low number is a strategy these men actually support.

Senior Senator Gbehzohngar Findley of Grand Bassa County argues that the Gender Equity Bill is an insufficient tool for increasing the participation of women in politics.

“The Gender Equity Bill would have been a fiasco,” says Senator Findley. “Political parties featured more than 30 percent [women], and still women were not elected.”

According to Findley, 107 women candidates registered in the elections to contest 97 legislative seats, meaning that more than 100 percent participation in the electoral process still resulted in a loss for women.  This raises doubts, says Findley, about the effectiveness of the proposed Gender Equity Bill.

“I didn’t feel that bill was enough to guarantee women participation in the legislature,” says Findley.  “If you really want to have an impact and want to have 30 percent women in the legislature, then you need something stronger than that.”

Despite the challenges faced in Liberia, results from other African countries demonstrate that gender bills can work.

Rwanda came from a history of genocide to lead the world with over 48 percent female representation.  In Angola, women comprise 39 percent of the National Assembly.  Similarly, the South Africa National Assembly includes 178 seats held by women out of a total of 400.

Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with fellow Liberian, President Johnson Sirleaf, and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman for their work on women’s rights, says she is deeply disappointed with the drop in the number of women lawmakers.

“We cannot continue to claim Africa’s first female president and continue to show the kind of results that we saw for women in the last elections,” says Gbowee.  “It is a big shame to the women of Liberia.”

The double Nobel gains do not change the fact that Liberia is still a tough place for women.  Rape continues to be a constant fact of life for many.  Women in Liberia do not have rights to the custody of their children.  Many are thrown out of their homes with no property rights.  Thousands lack the requisite educational qualifications or technical skills to compete for jobs with men.

The key, say many activists, is for women to starting standing up for each other.

“We should continue to encourage women, build their capacity, encourage them at all levels,” notes Dolly.  “Then automatically they will take the line of leadership in the country.”

Wade Williams is a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting independent media in Africa. See more at