In Liberia women follow in president’s footsteps

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Four years after voters in Liberia, battered by decades of dictatorship, economic ruin and civil war, elected a no-nonsense former banker and UN official, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as their president, the country is making slow progress towards recovery. But there is still a long way to go.

Poverty and unemployment are high among youth and the country’s 100,000 demobilized former fighters, fuelling concerns about stability. Government facilities and services, including for health and education were largely destroyed in the fighting. Average income, while rising, is among the lowest in the world: In 2009 the typical Liberian struggled to live on the equivalent of just US$0.38 per day, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates.

It would be a daunting agenda for any president. But the stakes are particularly high for Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected an African head of state — and for the millions of women across the continent who see her success or failure as their own.

Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who currently heads the West African regional Women Peace and Security Network–Africa, also sees President Johnson-Sirleaf as a trailblazer for African women. Despite the many problems that faced Liberia on inauguration day in January 2006, Ms. Gbowee gives the president generally high marks for her leadership.

Broadening horizons

At first, Ms. Gbowee told Africa Renewal, Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf’s appeal was simply that she was not one of the men responsible for the war. “It was out of desperation. It is not that people had this belief in women. It was a feeling that ‘We’ve tried the men from top to bottom. Now let’s try something else’.”

But since then, explains Ms. Gbowee, the president has attracted support because of her conduct in office. “I have grown to respect her ability to stand up in the face of immense criticism and try to do right for her country.”

That is high praise from a founder and organizer of the grassroots Liberian women’s peace movement. At the height of the fighting, Ms. Gbowee helped unite and mobilize thousands of Liberian women to protest the 14-year civil conflict and advocate for reconciliation.

Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf’s presidency has opened new possibilities for Liberian women and girls, Ms. Gbowee notes. “Take small-scale market women,” she says. “In the past they only aspired to maybe go to Ghana to do some cross-border trading. Now they are taking loans from the bank and going to China and other places to buy their goods.” The fact that a woman could be president, she says, has broadened their horizons.

Even her own nine-year-old daughter was inspired to challenge traditional gender roles, Ms. Gbowee says, smiling. “Six months after Ellen’s election, the elementary school where she went had an election [for class officers]. The children went out and did their campaigning and they got elected. They had 12 elementary classes and so you had 12 presidents — and 11 of them were girls!”

Surge in school enrolment

Since Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf’s inauguration, Ms. Gbowee explains, “You have high enrolment rates of girls in school now.” It is a claim borne out by the UN. Its most recent study of progress towards gender parity in education found that the ratio of girls to every 100 boys in Liberian primary schools rose from 74 in 1999 to 94 in 2007. Even in the rural areas, where tradition and poverty often combine to keep girls from school, she says, there is a new assertiveness and self-confidence.

Whether Liberia’s shattered education system will be able to accommodate the new students, however, is an open question. This is partly a legacy of the fighting. The government reports that more than 70 per cent of the nation’s schools were damaged or destroyed during the conflict and that hundreds of thousands of students were displaced.

There has been progress. School fees were abolished in 2006, spurring an 82 per cent increase in primary school enrolments, and spending on education reached 8.6 per cent of the budget in 2008, second only to health as the single largest budget line.

Although Liberia is unlikely to reach full primary school enrolment by 2015, the date set by the internationally accepted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the country does have a good chance of achieving equal primary school enrolment between boys and girls, another MDG goal, because of increased female enrolment.


But the progress for women has spurred a violent backlash by some Liberian men, Ms. Gbowee asserts. “Initially there was a feeling among some of them that ‘The men have failed, lets give it to the women.’ But now you get ‘You people have had it for four years. OK.”’ The country’s high rates of rape and sexual assault, she says, partly reflect that change in attitude.

Ironically, she notes, some of the advances made by Liberian women have complicated their efforts to work together to achieve more. “One thing we’ve seen in post-war Liberia is serious competition amongst women. It is not helpful in terms of making more gains. They feel they no longer need to collaborate to get there.”

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Gbowee says, Liberia’s first female president has broken new ground for African women and provided a springboard for further advances — and not only in Liberia. “When you talk to sisters across the continent, they say Ellen is the president for us all,” she says. “We think people are really watching. And she has emboldened women in other countries to step out.”

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
Michael Fleshman
Michael Fleshman has been a writer and consultant for the UN Department of Public Information in New York since 2000, working primarily for the UN’s Africa Renewal Magazine and Africa Renewal Online programme. Prior to joining the UN he spent 20 years at the anti-apartheid American Committee On Africa and The Africa Fund, working to build US solidarity with the African liberation struggles in South and southern Africa, and with the Nigerian pro-democracy and environmental movements.
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