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Reawakening Women’s Political Participation in Liberia

Throughout history, the right of women to vote in public elections had been a remote possibility and it was not until the 20th century that women, in many countries around the world, were granted suffrage, or the right to vote.

In the 19th Century, limited voting rights were gained by women in Finland, Iceland, Sweden and some western U.S. States. National and international organizations formed to coordinate efforts to gain voting rights, especially the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1904), also worked for equal civil rights for women.

In 1881 the Isle of Man enacted the Manx Election Act which gave women property owners the right to vote in the country’s Parliament. In 1893, New Zealand, then a self-governing British colony, granted adult women the right to vote. The self-governing colony of South Australia, now an Australian state, did the same in 1894, additionally permitting women to stand for office. In 1901 several British colonies became the federal Commonwealth of Australia, and women acquired the right to vote and stand in federal elections from 1902, but discriminatory restrictions against Aboriginal women (and men) voting in national elections were not completely removed until 1962.

History also tells us that the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was then part of the Russian Empire, was the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in the 1907 parliamentary elections. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. Most European, Asian and African countries did not pass women’s suffrage until after World War I.

During the early history of the United States, women were denied some of the key rights enjoyed by their male counterparts. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics. It was not until November 2, 1920 that women voted for the first time in the United States following the ratification of the 19th amendment by Congress.

In Europe, the late adopters of Women’s suffrage were France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952, San Marino in 1959, Monaco in 1962, Andorra in 1970,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984. In addition, although women in Portugal obtained suffrage in 1931, this was with stronger restrictions than those of men; full gender equality in voting was only granted in 1976.  In Saudi Arabia, it was not until December 2015 that women were first allowed to vote.

Here in Liberia, women were not granted suffrage until May 1946. During the first administration of President William V.S. Tubman, a constitutional Referendum was approved granting women the right to vote, not only in municipal elections, but all others, including those at the state level. Despite the suffrage, the participation of women in public elections was not as pronounced as it became during the post conflict electoral periods of the country.

In the first post-conflict Legislative and Presidential Elections of 2005only 110 women representing 14% of the total of 762 candidates, contested the positions of president, vice president, representative and senator.

Though the Presidential and Vice Presidential Election of 2005 had the total of 44 candidates,only 4 women candidates (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party and Margaret Toh Thompson of the Freedom Alliance Party of Liberia contested the Presidentialposition while for the Vice Presidential position, Amelia Ward of the Liberty Party and Parleh Dargbeh Harris of the Liberia Destiny Party) contested. The Senatorial and House of Representatives Elections were contested by 106 Women candidatesdespite the fact that a total of 758 candidates contested the Legislative Election.

The results of the 2005elections show that in addition to the election of Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female president of Liberia, women held 17 of the 94 seats or 18% of both the Senate and House of Representatives. This number declined after the elections of 2011.

In the 2011 Elections,a total of 104 women candidates representing 11% of the total of 909 candidates,contested the positions of President and Vice President, Representatives and Senator. The positions of President and Vice President which were contested by 32 candidates had only three womencandidates(Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party, Gladys G.Y. Beyan of the Grassroot Democratic Party of Liberia and Manjernie Cecelia Ndebe of the Liberia Reconstruction Party. They were all Presidential Candidates.)

At the close of the 2011 Elections, a marginal 14 women were elected to various Positions including President, Senate and Representative. Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was re-elected President while 13 other women occupied 12% of the Legislaturedespite the increase in the number of seats in the House of Representatives from 64 in 2005 to 73 in 2011 which,resulted to an increase in thenumber of seats in the Legislaturefrom 94 in 2005 to 103 in 2011.

The number of women lawmakers in Liberia further plummeted following the December 20, 2014 Special Senatorial Election. During that election, only one of the three female senators that sought re-election-Jewel Howard Taylor of the National Patriotic Party andBong County- was successful. Mrs. Taylor was also the only female, out of the total of 20 women candidates in the election who was elected.

Today, the Liberian Legislature comprises a negligible 11 women-out of the total of 103 Legislators. They include three Senators-Jewel Howard Taylor of Bong; Jeraldine Doe Sheriff of Montserrado and NyonbleeKarnga Lawrence of Grand Bassa-and eight Representatives- Julie FartormaWiah (recently elected) of Electoral District Number 2, Lofa County;Munah Pelham Youngblood of Electoral District Number 9, Montserrado County; MalahGbogar and Gertrude Lamine of Districts 2&3, Gbapolu County; Mary Karwor of District Number 2 Grand Bassa County; Corpu Barclay of District Number 7, Bong County; Josephine Francis of Electoral District Number 1, Montserrado County and MariamuFofana of District Number 4, Lofa County.

The decline in women’s participation in electoral activities in Liberia is not only common to representation in the legislature; it is also glaringlyreflected in voter registration statistics. Since 2005, voter registration records have continuously pointed to a reduction in the number of women voters. In 2005, the number of registered women voters was 676,390 or 50% of the 1.4 Million registered voters.

This number reduced slightly following the voter registration exerciseof 2011when the voter roll revealed that the total number of women registered as voters was 878,482 or 49% of the total of 1.8 million registered voters.

Statistics released from the Voter Roll Update Exercise conducted for the Special Senatorial Election of 2014shows that women accounted for 37% of the new voters. Presently,the number of women registered as voters stands at917,039 or 48% of the 1,903,229 registered voters in Liberia.

Even in political parties, the visibility of women remains condescendingly remote. In Liberia today, none of the 20 registered political parties has a woman occupying the position of chairperson or secretary-general within its rank. Women are instead consigned to idle and isolated positions in political parties.

This continuous decline in women’s participation in electoral activities in the country is an unwelcomed development simply because of the quintessential role women actuallyplay when elected to public offices.

Research has shown that female lawmakers are not only inclined to advancing issues of women’s rights, they also advocate for equitable distribution of community resources, including more gender-sensitive spending on programs related to health, nutrition, and education.

Experience has also shown that in national legislatures, women are more inclined to advancing gender and family-friendly legislation than their male counterparts. This positivism has been seen in France, Sweden, the Netherlands, South Africa, Rwanda, and Egypt. Furthermore, a number of studies from both industrialized and developing countries indicate that women in local government tend to advance social issues.

The Human capabilities approach, in which individuals are empowered to choose the functioning that they deem valuable, is the notion in which women’s empowerment should be rooted.

Therefore the dogged persistenceof the decline in women participationin electoral processes in Liberia should now begin to claim the attention of all stakeholders, especially civil society organizations involved with advocacy for women.

These actors should now begin to harness their resources around programs and projects that would serve as motivational incentives for increasing women participation in all spheres of political activities in Liberia either as voters or as candidates for elective public offices.
Holding regular robust dialogue through civic engagement of national leaders, including legislators is very essential to this process, especially at the time when the country is at the brink of conducting a national referendum to make possible amendment to its constitution.
The currentreform efforts of our constitutionwhich is a fundamental guide for organizing governance structures and establishing agreed legal principles, provides an exceptionalopportunity for the country to embed or expand gender equality provisions in the constitutionin line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which calls on signatory nations to include principles and programs on gender equality in their respective constitutions.
Hence harnessing thislofty opportunity at this critical point in the history of our nation is very important to improving the mass participation of women in electoral processes in Liberia.
Joey T. Kennedy, a former Talk show host, reporter and News Presenter at Star Radio, DCTV/Radio, Crystal FM and KISS FM and former Director of Advocacy and Communications at the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS)is Director of Communications atthe National Elections Commission (NEC). The views expressed in this article are his individual views; they do not reflect the views of the Commission

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