This reporting was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation and NDI’s VAW-PM Program.
... “I remembered a candidate posted my pictures when I had the cigar, saying 'Is this the person that you want your children to follow?” Dolo says, a former model and Miss Liberia, Dolo says she was bullied and harassed on social media.
Wokie Dolo still vividly remembers the early morning call when she learned that a picture of her smoking a cigar had gone viral on Facebook. It was accompanied by several degrading and sexist comments. This all happened at the height of her campaign for a seat in the House of Representatives. The picture had been posted by one of her opponents.
“I remembered a candidate posted my pictures when I had the cigar, saying 'Is this the person that you want your children to follow?” Dolo says. A former model and Miss Liberia, Dolo says she was bullied and harassed on social media.
Dolo’s case is not unique to her. This year, as Liberia held its presidential and legislative elections, other women candidates reported similar experiences. This treatment of women candidates comes at a time when women make up a low percentage of candidates for elective office. In the just concluded election, out of the 1030 Representatives candidates, 152 were women, according to the National Election Commission (NEC). Of this number, 22% registered as independent candidates. Out of 100 Senatorial candidates, 7 were women.
In 2006, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first woman president in Africa. Women’s rights advocates and activists, who have spent decades advocating for women’s advancement in politics, were jubilant. But seventeen years later, the number of women seated in elective offices is still low. Liberia has one of the lowest levels of representation of women in elective office in the world, according to World Bank 2022 data. Just 11 percent of the seats in the legislature are held by women.
Atty. Mmonbeydo Nadine Joah, an attorney who heads the Organization for Women and Children, says women are bullied on social media because their opponents want to discourage them from politics.
“We saw the instance where a certain woman who was very prominent on Facebook got into politics. We saw how people took her picture and put it online to shame her,” Joah says. Social media bullying of women candidates is a form of political violence, according to an agreement between the National Election Commission and the political parties. On social media, women candidates are often judged and criticized not based on their intellectual ability, but on what they wear and their private lives.
Founded in 1847, Liberia has a long history of male domination of elective offices. Almost all presidents, vice presidents, lawmakers, senators, and local chiefs have been men. In the legislature, the number of women has remained low for years. From 2005 to 2023, about 15 percent of the candidates were women. In today’s House of Representatives, women hold 8 of the 73 seats, or about 11 percent.
In the Senate, women hold fewer of the 30 seats, about 7 percent. Liberia has had two women heads of state, Ruth Sando Fanbulleh Perry and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; one woman has served as vice president, Jewel Howard Taylor. Out of 162 countries, Liberia is ranked 156th on the Gender Inequality Index, a measure of gender disparities in opportunities for economic advancement and reproductive health. Advocates and activists attributed Liberia’s low score to sexism, established social norms, the economy, and online bullying.
In addition to online harassment and attempts at shaming, one of the major obstacles faced by women candidates has been a lack of funding. For example, running as an independent candidate, which is more expensive than running on a party ticket, costs $2,500 for presidential candidates, $750 for Senators, and $500 for House of Representative candidates. Candidates (whether independent or on a party ticket) need to show a bank balance of $10,000.
In contrast, although 80% of independent aspirants were men, in most cases, there was some level of party affiliation and support, whereas independent female candidates appeared to be less likely to receive any support at all from parties even if they were affiliated.
“One of the issues serving as barriers was the one hundred thousand bond that they have to pay 10 percent of so the insurance companies were getting money,” Joah says.
This comes, of course, on top of the cost of running a campaign, with rallies, T-shirts, and campaign posters. “Liberia politics is all about money, says Marvelene Lepukoi, an unsuccessful candidate in Bong County’s District 4. “Had I known that the voters needed quick impact projects or personal gains, I wouldn't have lost this election,” she said. “I would save all of my resources that I used for human capacity-building development in the county and use them to do the personal benefits with the voters and have my way through.”
Lepukoi contested on the Liberian National Union (LINU) party ticket.
Along with the financial requirements, candidates must submit a notarized letter of authorization for the NEC to verify the submitted bank statements and insurance policies. They must also submit a valid passport and show that they don’t owe property taxes.
In 2014, the National Election Law was amended to state that a political party or coalition should endeavor to ensure that women make up no less than 30 percent of candidates on lists submitted to the National Elections Commission. The law was not widely enforced. Advocates subsequently pressed 25 parties to commit to the 30 percent goal through a memorandum of understanding. In the last election, however, only two political parties achieved the 30% female quota during the nomination process-Transformation Party, and the Reformers National Congress.
The Movement for One Liberia (MOL), headed by Madella Cooper had 29 percent. Of the major political parties, the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) led by former presidential candidate Alexander Cummings, had the next highest total, with women accounting for 16 of its 59 candidates, or 26 percent. The CPP is a coalition of the Alternative National Congress and a breakaway faction of the Liberty Party, which also missed the quota. Outgoing President George Weah’s party, the Coalition for Democratic Change, had 12 women out of 82 candidates on its ticket, under 15 percent despite him campaigning as a champion of women.
Dabah M. Varpilah, one of the women who contested the senatorial seat in Grand Cape Mount on the Unity Party (UP) ticket, said her UP sought out women candidates, but not many were willing to run. She is the Unity Party vice chair for party affairs.
“We strive to achieve the 30 percent,” Varpilah says, “but we fell short because there weren’t as many women that were prepared. Elections are not easy things, they are stressful. They are very highly financially intensive, and you can't go to an election without having your own money.”
Varpilah says the women of the Unity Party had the 30 percent gender quota inserted into the party’s constitution at a 2022 party convention in Gbarnga, Bong County.
She says the women now pay 20 percent less than men in party registration fees. Men pay $1,000 and women $750. For most Liberian women vying for elective office, sexism might be their major impediment, but for Alice Baysah, former Margibi County district four candidates. For her stereotyping was her hurdle.
She says “They falsely accused me of not being a citizen of Margibi County.”
The low number of women in the legislature has slowed the passage of laws related to women’s issues, including gender-based violence, advocates say. In 2019, President Weah signed the Domestic Act to abolish all forms of violence against women, children, and men.
But five years later, advocates say not much has been done by the police and other authorities to ensure that perpetrators of domestic violence punished. In 2021, 496 domestic violence cases were reported to the Liberia National Police.
Advocates say that this is just less than the number of cases that are not reported, as many of them are settled at home. Liberian advocates have campaigned for more women in the legislature citing overwhelming evidence that greater representation leads to better economic and democratic outcomes and improvement in the lives of women and children. To improve the prospects of women candidates, UN Women worked with Sister Aid to set up a leadership clinic for women candidates in Liberia.
This clinic offered training in campaign management, messaging, and social mobilization for women candidates. Amelia Siafa, program director of the Women’s Political Participation Program, Sister Aid Liberia, established the “Women’s Political Leadership Clinic” to train women in capacity building and prepare women candidates for election, with mentorship, technical assistance, and outreach. Lepukoi disagrees with the goal of Sister Aid’s leadership clinic.
For her, training women in politics is not enough. She recommends that women candidates should be given money to fund their campaign activities.
“We have had too much training. If the international community believes in women's leadership, if they want to see Liberia having a dominant female leadership, they should invest real money into candidates. Let them give the money for us to compete with our male counterparts,” she says.
More campaign funds won’t stop the persistent online violence against women in politics, says Joah, the Organization for Women and Children. So she partnered with other advocacy groups to monitor incidences of violence against women during elections.
In 2017, they launched the Project Accountable Safe Space Women’s Accountability Room (PASSWAR). “There are no laws that ban violence against women in politics but there are laws that prevent gender-based violence even though we have not prosecuted a single case. Yet, we made significant efforts by raising awareness about this issue at least,” Joah says.
With the long history of low women representation, and the result from the just-ended election Liberia is far from achieving gender equality, and women candidates can only strive to continuously engage their voters.
For Estella Wehye, who contested in district two, Sanniquellie, Nimba County, and Julia Duncan Cassell, Liberia’s former Gender Minister, who also contested in district three Grand Bassa County, financial empowerment should be an utmost priority for anyone interested in seeing more women in elective positions.
To increase women’s chances in future elections, the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), a continental not-for-profit organization, recommends conducting studies to understand women’s voting behavior, engaging political parties in their nomination processes, and the possibility of recruiting, identifying, and mentoring potential females in preparation for elections.
EISA also recommends working closely with potential or unsuccessful candidates to analyze their performances against successful candidates to improve their chances. “Women have shown confidence in themselves and have not been deterred by barriers imposed by political parties or society. However, stakeholders should now examine the realities of the 30% quota agreement and the loopholes that seem to be working against women. Many foresee the gap in women’s participation and representation widening if a multi-pronged approach is not adopted in preparation for the next elections,” a statement in one of EISA's 2023 election findings said.