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CommentaryOP-ED

Towards a More “Equally Equal” Liberia: The Case for a Mandatory Gender Quota

By: UN Liberia Resident Coordinator Niels Scott

UNWOMEN Liberia Representative Comfort Lamptey

UNDP Liberia Resident Representative Stephen Rodriques

Monrovia, Liberia; August 15, 2022: The 54th Session of the National Legislature has an enormous opportunity to represent the interests of Liberian women and advance Liberia’s record of women’s leadership in Africa and globally through the passage of a mandatory gender quota in the New Elections Law that is currently on the agenda of the Senate.

Liberia already has the great distinction of being the first African nation to elect a female president, and currently has a female Vice President. However, state institutions remain largely male dominated and, globally, Liberia is ranked 156th of 162 countries on the Gender Inequality Index  and 163 out of 185 countries on the list of women in national parliaments.  Whereas the average percentage of women in national parliaments is 26% for sub-Saharan Africa and 17% in West Africa,  in Liberia women make up less than 11% of the 103 seats in the National Legislature. These statistics represent a crisis of under-representation given that women and girls comprise 50% of the population.

Without affirmative action and legislation to help address the exclusion of women from the national legislature, Liberia’s democratic and developmental goals will not be achieved.

Legal and Policy Frameworks for Women’s Political Participation in Liberia

Liberia has adopted a range of regional and international legal frameworks on the advancement of women’s political and civic rights at local and national levels, including: ratification of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol; adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; and ratification of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol). As a member of the African Union, Liberia is also expected to implement the AU’s 50/50 gender parity principle. As a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Liberia is also expected to implement the Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, and Gender and Elections Strategic Framework and Action Plan, which includes adopting progressive electoral law reform, including affirmative action/gender quotas for elections at all levels.

Nationally, Article 5 of the Constitution of Liberia makes provisions for the national unity of Liberians into one body politic and for the enactment of laws encouraging the participation of all citizens in government. National policies have been adopted to address different aspects of women’s political participation and representation. The National Gender Policy (2018-2022) commits to promote gender parity in all spheres of governance and adopt affirmative action policy and legislation for women’s participation, as does the National Government’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD) (2018-2023). Specifically, Pillar One: Power to the People seeks to increase political participation of women at the national and local levels to reach a target of 30% by 2023. 

The Correlation between Candidate Listings and Numerical Representation

Gender quotas are a type of “temporary special measure” to accelerate women’s substantive equality with men, and achieve the necessary structural, socio-cultural changes to redress the historical marginalization of women from political life.

A 30% gender quota for women on candidate listings was first set in Liberia in 2005, with the “Guidelines Relating to the Registration of Political Parties and Independent Candidates” stating that each party “shall ensure” that 30 percent of its candidates be women.

Although no political parties met the 30%, for the major parties in 2005, the average was 20% women on candidate listings (Congress for Democratic Change – 21.7%), Unity Party – 8.8%) and Liberty Party 22%).  Overall in 2005, of 873 candidates in 2005, 207 were women – almost 24%.  These percentages were higher than in any election thereafter. 

As a result, the 2005 elections saw the highest percentage of women elected to the Legislature – there were almost 17% in the Senate and 14% in the House of Representatives.

These guidelines for political parties were dropped by the 2011 elections. And in 2014, the amendments to the New Elections Law included the phrase “endeavor to ensure” but did not define what constituted as endeavoring to ensure, nor include any accountability mechanism. From 2005 to 2014, not a single political party met the 30% threshold.

Only one of 24 registered parties or coalitions met the quota in 2017. The largest, strongest parties or coalitions did not come close. UP at 17%, CDC at 11.5%, and LP at 10%.  In 2020, only two of the nine political parties or coalitions with multiple candidates met the quota.

So, without support from political parties, the percentage of women in the Legislature has fallen from 16% in 2006 to less than 13% in 2012, and 11% in 2014. This fell further to under 10% in 2021 and is now under 11% again.

The lesson is simple: when parties put more women on their lists, more women win!

Amending Certain Sections of the New Elections Law: An Opportunity for Change

An Act to amend certain Sections of the New Elections Law (1986) was passed by the House of Representatives in February 2022. This bill includes proposed amendments to Sections 4.5, so political parties “shall have no less than 30%” of either gender in their leadership and on their candidate listing. Moreover, the Act includes a means for enforcement, whereby the National Elections Commission can reject candidate listings that do not meet the 30% quota. This is important because political parties will not comply with subsections b and c if there is no consequence for non-compliance.

Although the target of 30% is significantly below gender parity, it would still be a great improvement in correcting the under representation of women on candidate listings.

Moreover, the language of “gender quota” is not discriminatory because it could also apply to men, should women be over-represented at some point in the future.

Gender Quota Systems and Women’s Representation around the World

Quotas are widely seen as a way to fast track equal representation in politics and have been a key mechanism for promoting democratization in the world since the 1990s. 137 countries  have adopted constitutional, electoral or political party quotas to address gender gaps in national decision making.  Of these, 76 have adopted legislated electoral quotas at national or sub-national level.  Of the 54 countries in Africa, 46 have adopted some form of legislated quotas and 37 of these have adopted quotas in either the single/lower house and/or the upper house of national parliament.

Constitutional and legislated quotas are more effective at increasing women’s representation than voluntary party quotas because all parties are required to comply.

Of those countries that have adopted electoral quotas, 60 (78%) have adopted sanctions for non-compliance. 48 countries (80% of countries) have adopted list rejection; with 11 giving parties a limited amount of time to rectify the list. 14 countries (23% of countries) have adopted other types of sanctions. 

In West and Central Africa, 10 out of 12 countries now have electoral quota laws.  However, those without legal sanctions have been much less effective. Senegal, Cabo Verde, and Mali have provisions for the rejection of candidate listings by the elections management body. Senegal has almost 43% women and Cabo Verde has almost 49% women in parliament, while Mali has 26.5%. Electoral laws in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, and Côte d’Ivoire have financial sanctions and other regulations for non-compliance.

Given the extremely low compliance of Liberia’s political parties with Section 4.5 of the National Elections Law since 2014, there is a clear need for the law to include a sanction and/or incentives to compel compliance.

While quotas need to be used alongside other measures to address the barriers to women’s representation, they are effective at increasing the numbers of women — and in politics, numbers matter a lot. In sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa, the use of a quota has been shown to increase women’s representation by 16% and 13%, respectively.  To strengthen substantive representation, UN Women, UNDP and partner agencies continue to work with women to build their leadership competencies, and with communities to challenge the cultural norms and discriminatory attitudes towards women leaders.

Liberia Will Be Better When Men and Women Lead Together!

When women participate fully in politics and decision-making, they bring different perspectives and experiences and approaches to solving problems and can represent women’s interests across many different issues. We need women and men to make decisions together so everyone can benefit. Liberia will not be able to meet the myriad of development challenges it faces if women are not at the decision-making table. Research from agencies like UN Women has shown that when women are equally represented in national government, more investment is directed to health, education, and social welfare. Having more women in leadership is also linked to stability and peace. They also provide role models for girls and young women. Equal gender representation in decision-making is thus not only the right and just thing to do, but also makes for smart politics. 

The Liberian women’s movement has been struggling to advance women’s participation in politics for decades. The time has come to create an enabling environment that will tackle the barriers and resistance to women’s political participation.

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