“Talk and Not Do! A Pattern of Failed Promises for Liberian Women”

  President George Weah left, Alexander Cummings of the opposition Collaborating Political Parties, center, and  Joseph Boakai, Standard Bearer of the former ruling Unity Party.

.... Major political parties still ended up with empty slots after almost two years of engagement on the 30% quota. The CDC, which set a voluntary 40% quota in May 2022, has nominated under 15% women. 

On May 11,  Heads and Executive Committee Members of Political Parties  and the National Elections Commission signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to promote women’s political participation. 

The MOU was for political parties to ensure women’s 30% representation on parties’ candidate nomination lists. This effort is intended to augment section 4.5 of the elections law which states only that political parties should “endeavor to ensure” no less than 30% of either gender on their candidate listings. 

25 political parties including coalitions have signed the MOU committing to have not less than 30% women on their candidate lists while in addition, some political parties set voluntary candidate quotas of 40%. The MOU was necessary in the absence of the electoral reform bill which had a mandatory 30% quota and fines for no compliance.

With the MOU signed, and the nomination process completed, the number is very low. According to the official updates released by the National Elections Commission as of the close of the nomination process on July 14, 2023, just 153 (15%) of the 1,030 aspirants who have registered to contest in the October 2023 national elections are women. 

According to the preliminary data, in 2023 just one of 31 political parties (Liberia Transformation Party) met the quota. And this is a relatively smaller party running fewer candidates. 

The Collaborating Political Parties is the only larger party, coalition and/or alliance that came close to 30%. In 2017 too, just one of 24 political parties, alliances or coalitions met the quota. In that case it was also a smaller party, the Liberia Restoration Party, which met its obligations.

Political party leaders, partisans and pundits have already begun to blame the women themselves, but it is the patriarchal system and its entrenchment in political institutions which produced and reproduces women’s underrepresentation.

Major political parties still ended up with empty slots after almost two years of engagement on the 30% quota. The CDC, which set a voluntary 40% quota in May 2022, has nominated under 15% women.  They should have been scouting women who have been working amongst the people over the years and with other key attributes and leadership experience and preparing them to be in the race.

In short: with the exception of one or two of Liberia’s plethora of political parties, most have never made any good faith effort by trying to find and groom women for success in party primaries and subsequent elections. As such, they have not lived up to their commitment in these MOUs nor has the National Elections Commission been able to compel them to try.

Despite the legal mandate that the NEC ensures political parties demonstrate an “endeavor to ensure” gender representation, the Commission has been unsuccessful in holding political parties accountable or compelling them to provide evidence of compliance or programs aimed at fulfilling this requirement. This is unacceptable within a democracy, especially considering that women comprise half of the population.

This will be the third time in Liberia’s democratic dispensation that reforms for equal participation do not get to be signed into law ahead of elections. Liberian women have expressed interest in legal and policy reforms to advance women’s political participation for more than 20 years and have been continually let down by elected officials and political parties who do not serve their interests.

The 2023 candidate nomination process was a crucial moment for Liberians to break away from business as usual and take significant steps towards promoting women's political participation. 

Political parties have continually demonstrated that they do not have any interest in strengthening their internal democracy and promoting equal political participation. Additionally, the persistent trend of a declining proportion of women being included on the candidate rosters of political parties signals a lack of progress in this area.

This circumstance has the potential to restrict women's engagement in politics and may compel female candidates to opt for less favorable options. Moreover, this dire circumstance serves as an early indication that the extent of women's involvement in the Legislative body may potentially decrease to a level below 11%. 

Subsequent to the October 2023 elections, Women face a range of official and unofficial, formal and informal barriers that limit women’s political participation.

Institutional constraints include barriers such as political systems that operate through rigid schedules that do not take into consideration women’s domestic responsibilities, and the type of electoral quotas used; the adoption of new electoral or party rules during or after war may facilitate women’s entry into politics. 

Lack of adequate support structures to rectify existing codified institutions to include women in political leadership and achieve gender equality in global politics. Political parties do not want to implement reforms because they fear they would lose political support and, consequently, political power. 

They, therefore, oppose changes that are likely to make them cede power. Perhaps this might be because of the fact that they would be serving political parties that are patriarchal and practice dirty politics.

A number of them appear to be blindly following political leaders with very little knowledge of what is going on. 

Cultural and traditional norms 

Women’s ability to engage politically both within and beyond the voting booth — particularly as community organizers and elected officials — is often shaped by norms that drive wider social structures. Fundamental to the constraints that women face is an entrenched patriarchal system in which family control and decision-making powers are in the hands of males. 

Traditional beliefs and cultural attitudes — especially as regards women’s roles and status in society — remain strong, particularly in rural areas. Traditional roles and the division of labor are still clearly gendered. 

Social norms that make it more difficult for women to leave their traditionally domestic roles for more public roles outside of the home; women’s gender identity is still predominantly conceived of as being more domestic in nature, and continues to act as a barrier to women’s entry into formal politics.

Economic Socio-economic status of women to a greater extent plays a significant role in enhancing their participation and representation in political decision-making bodies. Women lack the economic base which would enhance their political participation. 

The lack of an economic base for women has been a factor in their participation — or lack of — in politics because the cost of campaigning is very high. Lack of financial resources can limit participation given the costs associated with election. Independent funding and placing limits on campaign spending may support women in overcoming the barriers to political participation. Access to power tends to emerge from familial, communal and economic linkages, and these factors may help explain patterns of participation.

Final thoughts 

It is a shame that all the political parties that signed the MOU to set voluntary quotas to uphold their commitments disrespectfully neglected to act on it.

Not only that political parties blatantly refused to adopt social protection policies for women desirous of running on their ticket and reduce the financial obligations associated with candidate nomination, NEC also refused to develop monitoring tools to ensure political parties comply with the existing laws in the absence of a mandatory law holding political parties accountable.

Women’s political participation, representation, and leadership remain cardinal to Liberia’s democracy and development.