Sexism: the Price of Being a Female Politician in Liberia

PHOTO: Panelists (from left) Tetee Kearneh, CEO Spoon Network; Bai Best, Managing Director, Liberian Observer Corporation; Karishma Pelham Raad, Representative aspirant Montserrado County District #10; and Cornelia Kruah, Representative aspirant Montserrado County District #13.

.... “​Increasingly women are having to face cyberbullying and it's really hate-filled misogyny and, in many many cases, it is used to shut you down,”  says Kruah, who is the National Vice Chair for Inter-Party Relations of the opposition Unity Party

Imagine picking up your phone and receiving abusive messages every day.​ This experience is what ​Liberian women politicians have had to deal with on a daily basis — sexism and abuse on social media — all for voicing their respective political opinions.

The goal, according to Cornelia Kruah Togba and Karishma Pelham Raad, is to scare off women from standing for election,  as the abuse is not driven by policy differences but intolerance for the role that women are increasingly assuming in public life.

“​Increasingly women are having to face cyberbullying and it's really hate-filled misogyny and, in many many cases, it is used to shut you down: to reach you to a point where you say I am not interested in politics anymore,” says Kruah, who is the National Vice Chair for Inter-Party Relations of the opposition Unity Party and a legislative candidates comes October 10 elections.

According to Kruah, there are lots of areas of Liberian life in which women are underrepresented and feel unable to express themselves, but it’s particularly prevalent in politics.

Sexism in Liberian politics is a pervasive issue and has been peddled with little consequence. This reality has become a fact of life for women who choose to run for office, as female participation in politics in Liberia remains among the lowest in the world.

Women's rights advocates have noted that sexism continues to have a significant impact on silencing women in politics. It makes it difficult for most women to express their views, and engage in political discussions without fear of abuse or intimidation. 

And despite recent efforts to increase awareness of diversity and gender, little progress has been made to address this issue in the country's political sphere.

The 2017 presidential election is a case in point, with none of the 20 candidates being women. Additionally, only 10% of the candidates for the House of Representatives were women, further highlighting the need for action to address gender disparity in Liberian politics.

The under-representation of women in Liberian politics can be attributed to a range of factors, but sexism appears to be a significant driver. Women candidates are often portrayed negatively, while male candidates receive less criticism. 

As a result, female politicians are judged, most often not on their ability to lead, but on superficial factors such as their dress code, appearance, facial expressions, utterances, and responses.

“There are lots of women out there who want to get involved in politics, but they abandon the idea because of sexism.  You have to be mentally strong if you want to compete. There are still so many obstacles to women becoming politicians,” says Raad, who is also contesting legislative elections on October 10.

The political atmosphere in Liberia, according to Raad, discourages other women from running for office, saying she is prepared and has embraced it.  But her fear is that if sexism is not addressed as soon as possible, more women's voices will be threatened and silenced making it more difficult for them to rise to higher political offices. 

A notable example is Paulita C.C Wie, a former senatorial candidate and current Deputy Minister for Urban Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  While running for the Montserrado County senatorial seat in 2019, Wie was subjected to derogatory comments about her hair on social media and in public, resulting in limited campaign appearances. 

Similarly, during that same year’s election, President George Weah disparagingly referred to Telia Urey, a legislative candidate in Montserrado County District #15, as “a little girl”, despite her being an adult and a mother. 

Urey subsequently experienced severe violence and other abusive languages.

These experiences have now forced women like Raad and Kruah to join a growing chorus of women to speak out against sexism. They argue that sexism not only affects women in politics but also has wider implications for women’s rights and gender equality by contributing to a culture of misogyny and discrimination that undermines progress toward gender equality.

Both women were speaking on a panel at a High-Level Meeting Between Women Leaders and the Media organized by UN Women. The meeting was in collaboration with the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building, Under the theme, “the role of the media in promoting gender-responsive reporting during electionsæ.

Kruah and Raad were joined by Bai Best, Managing Director at the Liberian Observer Corporation and Tetee Karneh, Chief Executive Officer, of Spoon Network.

“Women candidates really need security,” Best said. 

According to him, most times female politicians shy away when the media call on them to make themselves available to articulate their agendas to the public.

“You have to make yourself available, and then you will see who can help you get your message in the simplest form,” Best said. He also used the occasion to recognize about a dozen media institutions headed by women. 

For her part, Karneh committed her institution to work with female politicians if they make themselves available and pay for services the media rendered.

“The media is a business,” she said. “Though we are looking at the support, we need to survive.” 

Sharing the final word at the forum was UN Women Liberia Country Representative, Comfort Lamptey, who said: “The media have an incredible role in shaping public opinion, in disseminating correct information to the public, in supporting the public to understand and embrace the values of inclusivity and gender equality which is so critical for Liberia to deepen its democracy.”