Good morning everybody. Few weeks ago Levi Martin reached out to me asking to serve as the speaker of the first Café Humanist in Liberia. My first instinct was to find an excuse as it is often difficult to create and lead a path that everyone else is expected to follow. I tell you no lie, I am under immense pressure today (lol). But Levi knows I can’t say no to him so he took his shot as always and I am glad he did.
It is an honor to serve as Inaugural Speaker of Liberia’s Café Humanist- a regular gathering that is expected to not only enlighten us on various challenges faced by individuals in our society but most importantly that will discuss those rights that justifiably belong to every person in spite of nationality, race, ethnic origin, religion or sex. The fight of Humanist is a fight against discrimination and I am pleased to be a part of this fight.
For many years now, I have been an advocate for women’s empowerment and political participation. In 2017, I started an NGO called the Young Women’s Empowerment Network (YOWENET) that aims at creating a network of talented women leaders for professional excellence in high-profile careers, especially in politics, in Liberia and across Africa. At YOWENET we believe that the quota must not just be legislated but exceeded. That is, there should be an increase in women who are ready and willing to participate in politics which will ensure that we get more that 30% representation during elections and eventually in the National Legislature.
Few months ago, I tested this theory and participated in the District 13 Representative bi-election as the candidate of the former ruling Unity Party under the arrangement of the Coalition of Opposition Political Parties. We did not win that election but we made a statement. As a first-time contender in our National politics, we were able to carry out massive mobilization in less than three months and finish 3rd amongst 11 candidates with the majority being male.
A secret that many did not know was that in the middle of all the campaign activities I was working on my Master Dissertation a portion of which I will be presenting during segments of today’s presentation and had begun classes at the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law. This is something on the first thought, many would doubt a woman can achieve or they would fight to ensure she does not achieve as was seen in the case of the violence in District 13. Sadly, our society has created so many norms that if not strong would stifle your chances of succeeding in politics as a woman. It is no debate that women have the right to participate in political processes that affect them, their families and societies.
Today, we will be discussing humanism and women’s empowerment with focus on political and social challenges faced by Liberian women. Humanism is a system of thought that attaches more importance to human, science and natural causes rather than supernatural matters. So Humanist when determining a case of political participation will consider individuals concerned, policies, platforms and generally focus on creating equal opportunities for all to participate and not necessarily who was created first or who is the “assigned” head of the home. As a humanist, you seek only rational ways of solving the many problems humans have.
Before I continue, I would like us all to stand and observe a moment of silence for the student who was gang raped to death after sitting the just ended WASSCE Exam. (SILENCE) May her soul and the souls of all who have departed as a result of sexual and gender based violence rest in peace. Her case is just one of the many cases reported in the last week: two 4 yr old girls were raped while a 3 yr old and a 15 yr old were also reportedly drugged and gang raped.
Sexual and Gender based violence is just one of the many things affecting women and girls in Liberia and a cause for increased representation of women in the National Legislature to enact laws that will protect women and adequately prosecute perpetrators. Currently in the Legislature, there is the House of Senate consisting of thirty (30) senators, one (1) of whom is a woman and the House of Representative comprising of seventy-three (73) representatives, with nine (9) being women. I need not emphasize the urgency of an increase.
In 1985, Hawa Clemens Danquah became the first female in Liberia to contest a Presidential election as a candidate of the People’s Liberation Party. Liberia, on January 16, 2006, became the first African nation to inaugurate a democratically elected female as President of the Republic. However, the rise to power of a female President, Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in Liberia did not automatically translate into increased women’s political participation.
Although several factors can be attributed for creating and maintaining this gap between male and female participation in politics, societal norms have played significant roles. Cultural and ideological beliefs impact the judgements of decision makers during legislative recruitment processes of political parties and their willingness to generally support women’s participation in politics. In most African countries, including Liberia, there exist ideologies that consider women as non-rational during decision making processes, weak in nature and less intelligent than men.
These ideologies and cultural practices therefore perpetuate traditional and cultural norms within the society which discourage women’s political participation and reduce the pool of women available and willing to participate in politics. For example, through the use of religious beliefs, patriarchal dominance is maintained in some countries by those in power. The famous, “the man is the head of the home and therefore women cannot lead men” is one common example in Africa.
Thankfully Liberia has gradually become accepting although not totally of women’s right to participate in politics. These patriarchal and hierarchical norms associate women only with domestic functions and consider this their rightful social contribution in the society.
When a woman decides to contest for a position, she has to answer questions about her marital status, the number of children she has, how many fathers she had them by- her morals are questioned before she even starts to speak. Seldom men have to undergo similar scrutiny. These beliefs also affect women’s interest in political participation. The media in addition, by creating and spreading stereotypes about women, reinforces these societal norms and stigmas.
Through this platform, women and their families are brought under attack during political processes and are subjected to malicious gossips. As a result of this, most times, women are forbidden by husbands or family members to participate in politics in order to avoid social stigma. Many are afraid to venture because politics is a “dirty game” and many husbands would not authorize their wives participation for fear of the public scrutiny, the insults, the midnight meetings and the community mobilization which takes time away from doing your work as a house wife. I would like to use this time to appreciate my husband. I really don’t have words to describe him. He married a tough nut to crack and he manages to cope with my headache and has given all the support he can give as a husband.
The structural arrangements of democracy and political movements in Africa leave little or no room for women’s political participation. After political independence was won, the struggles for actual democracy in Africa began with the realization by the masses that the new political elites did not intend to stay true to promises made during the nationalists’ struggles. One of their shortcomings was the marginalization of women in addition to concentrating resources in urban centers, the beginning of depoliticization and the domestication and intimidation of communities with high population.
Additionally, the indirect control of many political movements by wealthy professionals, retired military officers, politicians of the 1960s, professional political agitators- positions that are rarely occupied by women, makes it difficult for an increase in women’s political participation. This resonates with Liberia, those interested in becoming party candidates at the presidential or legislative levels must have sufficient funds to cover expenditures of the political processes.
Rwanda became the first country in the world with more women than men in the legislature by 2008 with women comprising 56% in addition to six sub-Saharan African countries where women constituted 25% of legislators. Liberia can make this much progress but first and foremost we must acknowledge that it is the rights of women to participate in politics and a level playing field must be ensured.
Governments, women movements and political institutions have made a lot of efforts in order to reduce the gap that exists between male and female participation in politics. These efforts include the setting of quotas within political parties and the legislature as well as supporting legislative appointment. Moreover, the inclusion of more women in political institutions and political leadership positions increase their engagements with citizens. However, more needs to be done. I am happy that we now have a major political party in Liberia that has a woman as its Political Leader, my own oldma, Sen. Nyonblee Karngar Lawrence.
It is my hope that the Liberty Party will take the lead in ensuring that her party conforms to the 30% quota set by the National Election Commission and encourage other parties within the Coalition of Opposition Political Parties to do same. I would like to salute the coalition so far for ensuring that out of the five bi-elections recently held, it has supported 3 women to contest: Josephine Francis, myself and now Telia Urey.
For there to be increased participation of women in politics, there should be affirmative policies and institutions developed that would focus on creating a suitable environment for women to freely participate and allow proportional representation. The policy that has been found to be most effective in achieving this is the institution of Quotas for political parties through the National Election Commission and reserved seats for women through Legislations.
However, there have been challenges around the passage of the “Affirmative Action” Bill, in Liberia, which calls for the reservation of 30% of the seats in the Legislature for women. Up the present, the bill has not been passed into law despite having a female President for twelve (12) years. One of the reasons for this failure is the low representation of women in the legislature who are unable to accrue the needed votes for its passage.
There has also been challenges with the implementation of the elections law mandating political parties to recruit 30% female for elected position during electioneering periods. It is good to note however, that setting Quota is one step in the right direction but this effort can be defeated if qualified women are not available to be recruited as candidates for political parties.
This is where my organization YOWENET comes in. In order to address this, training of women and support for grassroots participation would make women comfortable with politics, help increase the pool of women and reduce fear of participating in politics. In addition, our culture has to be more accommodative of women in order to ensure increase political participation. In the absence of a culture that empowers women through education and economically and that allows women to participate without objections or resistance, the gap between male and female participation in politics will widen.
To succeed, society would have to view women as partners in matters of the state and development and not just as caregivers and mothers in order to encourage more women to engage in politics and thereby increase the pool of women available for leadership positions. Civil society organizations and other organizations like Humanist International/Liberia have important roles to play in ensuring increased women’s political participation.
By providing trainings, financial support and technical assistance for women in politics- as has been done during past elections in Liberia by the National Democratic Institute- there would be a larger pool of women willing and ready to fully engage in political processes.
Women ohhh women. Don’t sit there! Do something positive! Melinda Gates said once that “ a woman with a voice is by definition a strong woman. But the search to find that voice can be remarkably difficult”. I have come to urge you, that no matter how hard, we must find our voice: individually or collectively. How far are you in the process of finding your voice? How far are you with overcoming your fears? How long are you going to continue being “kings-makers”?
Have you heard the famous saying during elections? “Just get the women on your side and you will win”? It is time that we step up and step out! There is no more waiting. It is your right to participate in politics. Claim that right and watch the world fall at your feet. For there is nothing impossible to achieve at the point where love and passion meets. Brave the storm! Let no one stop you or dull your shine! Fight! Inspire & Lead! Thank you!