The Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), as a steering committee member of the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), recently concluded series of dialogues as part of its Electoral Reform Project funded by USAID through the Liberia Accountability Voice Initiative (LAVI).
The forums were held via Zoom and brought together seventy-eight (78) participants of which 90 percent were females.
Panellists included Representative Hon. Rosana Schaack, former Minister of Gender and representative candidate, Julia Duncan Cassell, Madam Frances Greaves, Facia Harris, Miatta Darwolor Thomas, and 2020 Senatorial aspirants Dorothy K. Tooman (Bong), Edith Gongloe Weh (Nimba), Hawa Corneh Bropleh (Grand Cape Mount), and Siah J. Tandanpolie (Montserrado).
The dialogues were designed to discuss strategies to increase women’s political representation, which is low in all three branches of Government, and particularly low in Liberia’s Legislature. Following the untimely deaths of Senator Geraldine Doe Sherriff and Representative Munah Pelham Youngblood, women occupy just 9 of the 103 seats in the Liberian Legislature. That’s less than 9% female representation where women and girls make up 50% of the population. The underrepresentation of women is one of Liberia’s greatest democratic deficits.
The equal representation of women and other historically marginalized groups is a matter of democratic deepening, as well as national development: “It is only when institutions are democratic and representative of all groups in society, women as well as men, minorities as well as majorities, the dispossessed as well as the affluent, that societies are stable, and then peace and national prosperity are likely to be achieved. (ECOWAS. 2016. ECOWAS Gender and Election Strategic Framework.) Accessed at http://ecpf.ecowas.int/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/ECOWAS-GENDER-AND-ELECTION-STRATEGIC-FRAMEWORK.pdf”)
Heading into Senatorial elections – and with electoral reform propositions before the Legislature – the dialogue was timely. In August, there was a public hearing on the proposed electoral reforms, including 4.5 b, c which state that parties should “endeavour to ensure” no less than 30% of either gender on candidate listings and in party hierarchies. From 2005 to 2015, not a single political party met the 30% threshold, (“National Elections Commission. 2017. Research on Women’s Participation as Candidates in Elections from 2005 – 2015. Republic of Liberia. https://www.undp.org/content/dam/liberia/docs/FINAL_RESEARCH%20ON%20WOMEN%E2%80%99S%20PARTICIPATION%20AS%20CANDIDATES%20IN%20ELECTIONS.pdf ) and in 2017 only one party (Liberia Restoration Party) met the 30%. The largest, most visible parties/coalitions on the national stage did not come close – with Unity Party at 17%, CDC at 11.5%, and Liberty Party at 10% (“National Elections Commission”).
As Honorable Rosanna Schaack explained during the dialogue, the language – that political parties should “endeavour to ensure” is not binding, so one of the Elections Law Reform Propositions is to make it so political parties “shall ensure” a minimum of 30% of the underrepresented gender. Moreover, she explained, the proposed reform also includes a new clause, which would give the National Elections Commission the authority to reject political parties that do not have the required 30% in their leadership and on their listing.
Madam Duncan-Cassell also reinforced this point noting that it will also be necessary for the Coalition of Women in Political Parties (COPWIL) and other stakeholder’s working together with them “to ensure that political parties as they are preparing for conventions come 2021-2022, that the hierarchy of the party include women – not just the women wing or women congress – and ensuring that when the party presents their candidates to NEC that NEC do what they are supposed to do in the Elections Law.”
Facia Harris also stressed the importance of legal frameworks, noting that we are not going to overcome the gender gap in political representation and leadership if we do not pass laws that are going to allow for equity and equality in political decision-making.
The dialogues also discussed the harmful stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes about women leaders and the need to work on voter sensitization, as well as support women candidates to develop clear, consistent and persuasive messaging around unique and relevant policy platforms. There was also discussion around the transactional nature of voting in Liberia, linking women’s political empowerment to women’s economic empowerment given the high expense of running campaign in the country.
The following recommendations emerge from the discussion:
That the Legislatures enact the proposed electoral amendments especially Section 4.5 (paragraphs 1b, 1c, 1d, & 1e) Nomination of Candidates and the prepositions included among the 25 constitutional prepositions that are directly related to women’s representation.
NEC should enforce existing electoral laws to put stop to political party candidates engaging in electoral activities outside of the specified date, i.e. engaging in campaigning before the date set by NEC. or trucking electorates.
Political Parties should develop a more inclusive internal system within their parties to support women’s political participation.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and International Organizations should support more capacity building programs and trainings for women to build their capacity and confidence as their male counterparts.
Monitor campaign finance during elections to create a level playing field for both female and male aspirants/candidates. Most women are not economically endowed as their male counterparts and this creates an uphill battle for most women aspirants/candidate leading to their undeserved defeat.
The National Legislature enacts law to protect candidates, especially women from violence against them in politics i.e. bullied during elections. Such behaviors mostly perpetrated by male candidates against women candidates can be demoralizing, inhumane and should be discouraged in all forms and manner.