If the current administration’s national development agenda is indeed about transforming the lives of the poor, then perhaps the women of Liberia’s southeast have reason to hope. Even as poverty rates are on the rise across the country, they arguably remain the poorest of the poor. Tough times are unfortunately nothing new, and after too many years of tough times, Southeastern women have become more vocal in articulating their constituent needs and political expectations.
According to Laura Dweh, the Southeastern Women Development Association (SEWODA) has long been an advocate for women’s wellbeing, and rights. Founded in 1996 as a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, SEWODA has engaged in a full spectrum of activities to leverage female leadership potential and create more opportunities for women to thrive as social, economic and political actors. Working in communities throughout the five counties of the Southeastern region, SEWODA addresses issues related to the rule of law, sexual and gender based violence and political representation, and provide a number of services including counseling and skills training.
SEWODA collaborates with other women’s groups, government agencies and international partners, as well as working directly with individual women. They prioritize those who are at risk, especially widows and school-dropout adolescent girls, and those who have evident leadership potential. As Coordinator, Ms. Dweh engages with women throughout Maryland, Grand Gedeh, River Gee, Grand Kru and Sinoe counties to learn what’s on their minds, and uses that information to help set SEWODA’s agenda.
When it comes to electoral reform, rather than sit back and allow the dialogue to take place only in Monrovia and nearby areas, SEWODA is engagement women in small meetings to make the connections between electoral issues and the difficult circumstances southeastern women face.
At a recent gathering held at their Barclayville office, about twenty women focused on what should be done to increase women’s participation in Liberia’s electoral processes. After much discussion, there was a resolve to petition their lawmakers (Senators Albert Chie and Peter Coleman; Representatives Nathaniel Bahway and Fonati Koffa) to speedily look at any statutory issues involved in making pro-women amendments to the New Elections Law.
If half of all Liberians are women, then why should there be so few women among those who represent and lead?
The purpose of section 4.5 of the 2014 law was to support gender parity in the Legislature, but its current wording makes this extremely difficult as it sets up a voluntary rather than legally mandated threshold for women’s representation. Political parties and coalitions submitting candidates for an election are requested to “endeavor to ensure” that no less than 30 percent of candidates are from each gender.
According to Dweh, the National Elections Commission 30% ‘allotment’ (or voluntary quota) for women’s representation ends up being one of the ‘depriving factors’ in women’s full participation in the electoral process. Whereas this is the exact opposite intent, the fact that the quota is not mandated but only encouraged, is not enforced, and has no consequences for failure to comply, ends up providing political parties with easy rationalizations as to the low number of women candidates on their rosters.
“We Liberians should be fully aware of the potential that a woman has. So whatever opportunity is provided to her male counterpart must also be provided to her in the elections law of Liberia,” Dweh asserted.
Madam Nyema of Grand Kru Rural Women Structure praised the county for ‘producing’ three female superintendents (Roseline Sekpeh Tonneh Sonneh – 2005; Elizabeth Dempster – 2011; Doris Ylatun – 2017). While pleased about these appointed positions, she sees the low number of women vying for elected office as one of the major concerns in the county, and country.
As she explained, “If there are provisions in the elections law of Liberia to narrow the opportunity gap between women and men to partake in elections, it will provide motivation for more women to go for political positions in the county”.
“Some of our sisters will tell us that there has not been a system to encourage women into election exercises. Sometimes too they tell us ‘more men are always into elections business, and this can make some us afraid’”.
Through meetings such as this, SEWODA is providing a way to bring forward more women to tell the stories and experiences that have prevented them from taking active roles in the electoral process. Women are being encouraged to ‘rise up’ to contest for decision making positions, and they are listening. Interest is growing, with prominent county organizations such as United Sisters for Development and the Grand Kru Rural Women Structure getting on board. Whereas the latter has largely been engaged with adult literacy programs, the organization is now part of efforts to get more women to ‘stand up and step out’ into the electoral battlefront.
Liberia granted women the right to vote – and contest for elections – seventy-three years ago, in 1946. It took ninety-nine years from independence before this happened, and women’s suffrage remains an uphill journey. While today is not strange to see women voting or to hear women discussing political issues, they are many who still consider election and other governance matters to be outside the concern of women. Cultural norms compromise women’s active engagement in the political sphere, with ridicule, intimidation, threats of and actual acts of violence as common place experiences of many women who ‘dare’ to enter the political arena as candidates for election.
Beyond these risks, there are other considerable roadblocks to elected leadership.
In the 2017 legislative election, no political party met the voluntary threshold of 30% female representation, even after NEC extended the nomination period by an additional ten days. On average the political parties secured only 15.7% female representation; with United People’s Party (UPP) and Alternative National Congress (ANC) endorsing the highest number of female candidates, at 24 and 21 percent respectively. The Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), somewhere in the middle of the 26 vying parties pack, succeeded in diversifying its all-male roster to 13% women, with then-party Chairman Nathaniel McGill asserting that the Coalition had indeed “endeavored”, but not enough women were showing interest.
Yet, the Elections Commission decided to take no further action, confront political parties, or institute any regulatory reconsiderations targeted to improve or correct the process in future elections. In consequence, 980 citizens contested to represent their electoral districts and fill 73 seats in the 2017 elections. Doris Ylatun was the first woman to contest for the Representative post since Grand Kru was created in nineteen-eighty-four. She lost, along with 137 other women. Nine female aspirants succeeded, leading to a Lower House that is presently 12% female. With senatorial elections next year, southeastern women have moved past ‘hoping’ that their government will do more. They are now expecting to disallow the disenfranchisement of women, create equal opportunities for men and women, and support and create a more inclusive House. It is not too hard to imagine that, come next year, more and more of them are likely to be chanting the very words of former Aspirant Ylatun: “We want to enter the House to put the house in order.”
Shardrick Tarwily, Grand Kru CLEAR Fellow, contributed to this story.