RWANDA/LIBERIA: Women's Transformations during Conflict: the New Political Face

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Central Africa
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

While women are not new to politics, women's presence and faces in politics have become increasingly more commonplace. Furthermore, women's entrance to politics is not just during times of peace, but also in times of unrest. During a change, conflict, transition or political shift more women are found entering politics, albeit through a series of factors and different representational capacities.

The relationship between women's political representation and conflict-driven system changes is currently best exemplified in two African countries: Rwanda and Liberia. Despite their significant economic and conflict-related setbacks, Rwanda and Liberia are considered current global trailblazers for women's political representation. Furthermore, while many African countries have unfortunately endured conflict, few have had an increase in women's representation to the extent that Rwanda and Liberia have.
In Rwanda and Liberia the political representation of women varies from descriptive representation, (the number of women represented), in the former and substantive representation, (attention to women-friendly policy and issues), in the latter. While the female face is present in politics in both states, it is the alternate types of women's political representation that illustrate the scope of this new political face.

The conflict in Rwanda, the genocide of 1994, claimed an estimated 800,000 to one million lives in 100 days, caused another two million plus people to flee to neighboring countries , and another 1.5 million people became internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the wake of this egregious death toll and the population's expulsion from the state, the remaining population in Rwanda was largely made up by females. Since the majority of the perpetrators, persons killed or those who fled were men, Rwandan women came to represent 70% of the population.

Prior to, during and immediately following the genocide, Rwandan women were the typical examples of the woman's face in politics and in conflict: the underrepresented and the victim. Following Rwandan independence women were largely underrepresented due to political exclusion and a weak, practically non-existent civil society. By 1988, a few years after the United Nations Conference on Women held in Nairobi, women's representation had reached a then record high of 15.7% or 11 of the 70 seats in the National Development Council, and the Rwandan women's movement formally emerged. In the wake of these shifts, the 1991 Rwandan Constitution declared equality between men and women. A year later, the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family was established, and in 1993 Agathe Uwilingimana was appointed the first female Prime Minister of Rwanda.

Yet, despite all of these advancements, the genocide endorsed systematic tactics of discrimination against Tutsi women through the circulation of the Hutu Ten Commandments, spread by the extremist Hutus surrounding the Habyarimana government. The focus of these three commandments was to degrade Tutsi women and elevate Hutu women's status and desire. Once genocide began violence against women became more vicious, grotesque and targeted all women, Tutsi and Hutu, because they were the vehicles of reproduction. Violence committed against women included rape, gang rape, rape by objects, sexual mutilation, sexual slavery and being buried alive. One United Nations report estimates that from the time of the Rwandan Patriotic Front's incursion in 1990 to the genocide in 1994, 250,000 to up to 500,000 women were raped by the Interhamwe, as well as by the Rwandan army. Many rape victims became infected with HIV/AIDS and, despite surviving the genocide, the stigma of being raped dissuaded most from seeking treatment or seeking psychological help.

While the violence against women was horrific, in comparison, men as a group were the primary targets of extermination, and they made up the majority of the perpetrators and the majority of persons who fled. As a result, the most palpable aspects to post-conflict Rwanda became the overwhelming number of women. Women became the surviving face of conflict. This drastic change, first and foremost, disrupted gender roles. In terms of politics, women's clearly discernable face and presence resulted in the start of significant strides being made by the government for women. For instance, in 1999 the interim government, the Government of National Unity (GNU), reorganized the mandate of the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development (MIGEPROF) to integrate gendered perceptions into all policies and legislation, thus mainstreaming gender throughout all branches of government. MIGEPROF also set up women's councils whose specific function is to advocate and advise women in local politics. Outside of party and state control, women's organizations flourished, with much of their work focusing on rebuilding society, individual lives, lobbying and teaching potential candidates.

Women's political reach continued despite the government increasingly authoritarian practices. For instance, women's representation went above 20% during the final two years of the transitional government, and 27% of the judges elected for gacaca were women. Then, in the 2003 election women were elected to 39 out of 80 seats (48.8%) in the Chamber of Deputies (lower house) and to six of the 20 seats (30%) in the Senate (upper house). In the lower house women exceeded their constitutional mandate of 30% by 18.8%. This led to Rwanda's lower house having the highest percentage of women represented in the world, out-ranking the usual Scandinavian suspects. Since then Rwanda has not only remained at the top of the Inter-Parliamentary Union list of Women in National Parliaments, but the percent of women has increased. In 2008, women's representation rose to 56.3% in the Chamber of Deputies and to 34.6% in the Senate.

Although women's descriptive representation in Rwanda has reached the highest levels in the world, the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Consequently, the significance of Rwanda's substantial level of descriptive women's representation is challenged due to its existence within a non-democratic political system. In an authoritarian system the significance of a large female presence in politics does not have the same clout as it would in a democracy. Its authoritarian nature is also suspected to infringe upon women's political capabilities, despite women's high representation in government.

Despite the challenges faced by the Rwandan female political figures, many assume that the increase in women's political representation will be able to transform the authoritarian nature of the Rwandan government. Furthermore, although women's political learning curve is occurring under an authoritarian government, they are nonetheless learning political skills applicable to all political systems. Moreover, women are set to potentially face long-term benefits because their presence in government will undoubtedly mainstream women in Rwandan institutions, structures and culture. Women's presence in Rwandan politics is set to become the norm. Since the genocide women have become a new political face in the Rwandan government, and as a result, they have become a part of women's transformation after conflict.

In contrast to Rwanda's 100-day genocide, Liberia's civil war waned on for fourteen years. The conflict began December 24, 1989, when Samuel Doe's nine-year military regime came to an end with an attack by the multi-ethnic rebel group the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor. The attack ignited a rebellion of other rebel and splinter groups, which precipitated into the first phase of civil war that ravaged the country for the next six to eight years. Then in 1997 Charles Taylor, the leader of the NPFL rebel group, was elected president of Liberia. By this time an estimated 150,000 people had been killed and more than 850,000 had become refugees. Within a few years, just as rebel groups had formed against Doe, rebel groups formed against Taylor, and in April 1999 an uprising against Taylor marked the beginning of the second phase of civil war. Then, after four more years of civil war, on August 14, 2003, after numerous delays, Taylor succumbed and resigned as president, leaving for exile in Nigeria. After a two-year transitional government Liberia held a unique post-conflict presidential election which was neither threatened by rebels nor had an incumbent running, and furthermore, the election was between a soccer star, George Weah, and a woman, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. On November 23, 2005, the elections proved to be historic when a woman, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was elected as the first female president of Liberia and on the African continent.

In the case of Liberia, the woman's face not only became a face to represent Liberia post-conflict, but also as the political face of the state. Naturally, the election of Johnson-Sirleaf raised the questions of how and why did a woman get elected in post-conflict Liberia? For instance, throughout Liberia's history women's status has fluctuated in accordance with the political settings. Prior to the quasi-colonization by the American Colonization Society, and followed by the hundred-year rule by the True Whig Party (TWP), Liberia functioned under a hierarchal system that was headed by chiefs. Parallel secret societies existed, Poro for men and Sande for women, that assisted with decision-making, labor issues, creating allegiances and accumulating resources. Under the Americo-Liberian rule of the TWP, only certain women – elite settler women – were able to buy and sell land, initiate divorce, and have legal agency. During the 1950's women's suffrage occurred creating an opening for women in politics, academia, healthcare and legal fields. Economic standing for indigenous rural women also shifted as men increasingly migrated for jobs and the feminization of agriculture occurred. While rural women's gender roles and traditional tasks altered, they still lacked formal access to education and consequently maintained a lower status than urban women. Thus, despite some progress, women's rights in Liberia at the time of the 2005 election were not necessarily equal between women or to those of men.

Furthermore, when these past mediocre political and social standings were paired with the onslaught of violence from the civil war, women's integrity was challenged overall. From the beginning of the civil war violence against women was significant but the extent varied according to ethnic group, religion and social status. While many women were abducted for forced labor or for sexual slaves, some women did join rebel forces for protection and others resorted to prostitution as a means of economic necessity. Although Liberian women became in many instances the face of the victim, seemingly in the spirit of Johnson-Sirleaf, many women seized the opening created by conflict and found opportunities.

For instance, since men became increasingly absent, either because they were killed or in hiding from rebels, the scope of women's economic activity widened, and their political positions and the number of women's organizations increased. For example, Ruth Sando Perry used her sowei/zoe (headwoman) status to negotiate with rebels during the civil war, and was chosen to be the chairwoman of the Council of State after the first phase of the civil war. As a result, women's status in Liberia has fluctuated from the disenfranchised poor to esteemed leaders during and post-conflict.

The election of a woman Head of State continued Liberian women's unique path. Despite her Harvard education and prior policy-making and political experiences, the election of Johnson-Sirleaf in the male-dominated Liberia political climate came as a surprise to many. Johnson-Sirleaf's significant career resume included being the first female Finance Minister in Africa under former Liberian President William R. Tolbert, and positions as an economist at Citibank Africa, the World Bank and the UN Development Program. While the credentials of the more qualified candidate shows why Johnson-Sirleaf won, the question of how the election of a woman in a post-conflict time period, riddled with ex-combatants in a patriarchal society, is nonetheless still shocking.

The reasons behind Johnson-Sirleaf's election also show the transformation of Liberian women—the female vote, women's organizing and women's organizations. This transformation of women is exemplified by a recent study that examined the involvement of women's organizations surrounding the 2005 election, which found that women's organizations were the only civil society groups that were constantly active throughout the entire election period, even between the election and the run-off. Also, according to the Liberian National Election Commission (NEC), women constituted over 50% of voters, and during the run-off, literate women had the highest turnout of any group.

Since the election of Johnson-Sirleaf women have been able to transform through the substantive representation of the president. For instance, one of the first laws Johnson-Sirleaf passed after becoming president was a law criminalizing rape and gang rape, making rape a non-parole offence in order to prevent abusers from returning to their communities and threatening victims. The following year the same law was expanded to include spousal rape as a recognized form of rape and as a crime. Since the 2005 election, Johnson-Sirleaf has also appointed many women to high office positions, counter-acting the fact that only five women (16.7%) were elected to the Senate and eight women (12.5%) were elected to the House. Currently, women make up 25% of Johnson-Sirleaf's Cabinet and 40% of the ministerial deputies and assistants, the highest percentages in Africa. Since the end of the transitional government the numbers of civil society organizations have also proliferated. As of 2007, there were 70 women's organizations registered to the Women's NGO Secretariat of Liberia, but it is estimated that the real number of women's organization is around 100. This large number of women's groups is consequently able to apply pressure around issues, which has slightly eased the president's passage of gender-sensitive policy.

Yet, while women's numbers in politics are changing, it is minimal and the positions are usually subordinate. As a result, Johnson-Sirleaf demonstrates that one woman has the ability to improve women's overall status, albeit slowly, through policy reform, engaging more women, and leading as an example to encourage women in politics. However, her presidency shows that a single president cannot create gender equality by herself or through policy alone. There must also be representational parity. Furthermore, in the case of Liberia better-rounded, gender-sensitive policy requires more women in government. The case of Liberia demonstrates that even when the president represents women substantively, descriptive representation is still essential.

The female political figures discussed in Rwanda and Liberia exhibit the emergence of a new political face in two post-conflict societies. Moreover, these political figures also portray the overall transformation of women from both countries. While conflict may have initially disrupted social norms and created an opening, it was the decision of these women to pursue such a course. As a result, the Rwandan and Liberian cases suggest that it is the utilization of the space that emerges from conflict that is important, and not just the conflict or the subsequent space. Numerous countries have endured conflict, but women's political representation has not grown in the wake of all conflicts. It is the actions taken by the respective government, women's organizations and women themselves that determine how the political opening after conflict is dealt with. Rwanda and Liberia may be the current exceptions; however, they have created a platform from which women can change conflict into an opportunity and become the new empowered political face, and no longer be the face of the victim.