As Africa's first woman presidential leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, works for an October 2011 bid for re-election, a groundbreaking initiative affecting 450 Liberian women is now encouraging women throughout Liberia to become leaders for solutions and innovation. Political participation by women, especially in Liberia's parliament, is said to be “much needed” among advocates inside and outside the nation.
Twenty appointed special trainers from Liberia's NEC – National Elections Commission are now going into their home regions to give insight and ideas to help women nationwide gain greater access and opportunity to participate as party candidates in Liberia's upcoming election.
The TOT – Training of Trainers Workshop, a five day training session which concluded on May 16, was designed to help women gain access to information covering exactly what they need to know to run for office in Liberia. Now it's up to the trainers to reach women who hope to join the election process as nominees from up to nineteen different political parties.
“What you have learned has a great impact on the entire process of Liberia,” said National Elections Gender Coordinator Jebbeh Kawah Brown to the workshop attendees. “It is now your obligation to go and inspire other women to take on leadership roles across the country,” she continued.
In spite of gains for women since President Sirleaf became Liberia's president in late 2005, the legislative body still has less than fifteen percent women.
“In order to empower people, some one is going to have to give up some power,” said peace activist and women's advocacy leader Leymah Gbowee during a recent Women News Network (WNN) interview.
Gbowee's leadership was pivotal for the great surge of women's participation in the 2003 peace protests that helped bring an end to Liberia's fourteen year bloody civil war. Gbowee's efforts and the bravery of the woman's peace movement in Liberia is chronicled in award winning film, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”
“Women's participation in all levels of government is crucial and must become an ‘unremarkable' feature of public life,” said former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
Working toward sustainable solutions within their home regions, women who hope to become part of Liberia's electorate face an uphill climb. Liberian government as a ‘still-young' democratic nation, is currently sorting through public policies where issues of gender and politics are in a state of maturation.
“Liberia's 2011 elections will be the first time one democratically elected government follows another,” says Tim Kellow from International Alert, a co-sponsor of the TOT Workshop. The Workshop is also being sponsored in cooperation with the UNDP – United Nations Development Program's Election Project and the NEC – National Elections Committee.
Although many women in Liberia still suffer today under limits with money, education and literacy, a majority of the programs to help and assist Liberian civil society have been created and are managed through the ongoing efforts of women.
“There is power in numbers,” said President Sirleaf at a November 12, 2010 lecture about women West Africa and leadership, for the tenth anniversary of the African Women's Development Fund.
With sixty-four members in Liberia's House of Representatives and thirty members in the legislative Senate, the cost of running for office in Liberia is not cheap. Raising finances for campaign advertising on radio and television with billboards, banners and pamphlets, as well as the costs of travel and event engagements, can be a large prohibiting factor for many women.
“Around the world women have a lower human and capital resource endowment than men: they often have fewer social networks linked to power than men, less education, less experience and less money,” says UN Women Peace and Security Chief Advisor Dr. Anne-Marie Goetz. “Networks and money are critical for effective political competition.”
Finances are not the only worry. Running for office also takes personal courage. Women in Liberia who enter politics can experience the possibility of violent repercussions. “The incidence of rape of women and girls continued to be alarmingly high in 2010, despite the establishment in 2009 of a dedicated court for sexual violence,” says international advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, in their “World Report 2011: Liberia.”
Struggling to bring democracy to a nation building back after conflict, a disconnect exists between Liberia's smaller locally-based tribal governing system and the larger national parliamentary governing platform. Sixteen official tribes within the Liberian region, along with tribal groups that are not officially documented, make up the national landscape.
Women at the local level are often blocked from participation under a system where local male tribal chiefs often reach positions through connection and influence. ‘Paramount Chiefs,' regional leaders who are appointed, also need influential family ties to gain approval.
Total exclusion of women in local and regional politics is not the only rule though. In 2008, sixty-eight-year-old Liberian Paramount Chief Madam Kahn Gibson reached her position as an advocate for rural children in Margibi County. In November 2010, Paramount Chief Elizabeth Jelley, of the Juarzon Statutory District, Sinoe County, was chosen to be Liberia's national delegate from West Africa to COP16 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico.
“You know, a majority of the men believe that they are the only ones created to be in control. Let me assure you today that we are able to encourage other women out there, with the level of knowledge acquired from the workshop,” said a TOT Workshop forum trainee, Sandra Worjulo.
The UNDP work in Liberia, includes a US$27 million election cycle basket fund, that has been working with the Ministry of Gender, political parties and other partners to boost women's participation in politics.
“I continue to be encouraged by the women with whom I interact across Africa,” said President Sirleaf. “They (women) see in my presidency a validation of something they have always believed, that ‘It is possible. We can make it happen.'”