Monrovia – There is currently one female in Liberia’s upper chamber, Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence, who is up for reelection and her victory is not guaranteed. Civil society organizations fear that if women don’t wake up, and don’t stand up, they will risk having no representation in Liberia’s upper legislative chamber.
Report By: Leila Gbati, LMD Election Reporting Fellow
Siatta Scott-Johnson, President of the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL), helped put things in perspective.
“It is sad that we have a country where women who make up almost 51% of the population don’t have even 10% representation in the Senate,” she added. In fact, female representation in Liberia’s Senate is 3.3%.
“Our fear is that the only female voice in the Senate is struggling for her position and if we are not careful, we might lose that one voice and we might have a Senate with all men, and I don’t think Liberians are seeing it like that.”
“This is why we encourage people to vote for women who are equally qualified and experienced in providing leadership,” Johnson said.
Liberia ranks at the bottom 153 out of 188 countries with regard to female representation in the legislative boy.
“The women and girls of Liberia who are at least half of the population of Liberia deserve more than one female political leader of a major political party, or only one female senator,” said Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence, the only female in Liberia’s Senate. “It has not been an easy being the only woman in the lion’s den,” she said.
“I have been pushing women issues, SGBV and good governance. Corruption has been strongly fought with one woman, that is why we need more women to be voted. Women are caring leaders and deserve the space at the political table to make decisions with the men and to impact the entire population,’’ Senator Lawrence said.
In order to become the first female Senator of Grand Bassa County, she says, she had to overcome fears and hesitation and summon the strong support of women. “I was walking a road no woman had travelled in Grand Bassa. And yet, I felt the presence and support of women from all over the Country, encouraging me to continue to walk along the path. Thousands of women who were not even from Grand Bassa were running with me, and I was running for them.”
Augustine Akoi, founder of the Better Future Foundation (BFF), said that it is regrettable that instead of making progress for women’s participation in politics, Liberia is moving backward.
“We need to be careful. If the only woman in the Senate, who is up for re-election, does not win, it is going to give Liberia a very bad reputation. We moved from where we used to have three, and even four women in the Senate to now just one. And if we are not careful, we may not have women representation at all. That is something that should concern us as a nation, because the Senate is the upper house, and it is the place where key decisions are being made. And when you have only a group of men deciding and crafting policies that will impact the destiny of the nation, and with no woman at that decision table, it is something that should greatly concern us,’’ Akoi said.
Representative Rosana Schaack, Chairperson of the Women Legislative Caucus, said that women need to bring men on their side to make progress.
‘’There is hope for women in the Senate after the December 8, Special Senatorial Election. When we raised the Domestic Violence Act, it was the men who were in the majority, but they joined us, the women, so that we could pass the bill. It is not only about women, but it is good for men to join us and support our effort. Once our men understand what our issues are, and where we came from, they can support us, and we can be successful.”
Rep. Rosana Schaack made it clear that being a woman alone does not qualify anyone to run for elections.
“We want women who are vocal, influential, and who are not afraid to take risks. We ask, what do you have to offer? What can you show to your people to convince them that you are the leader they are looking for? As women we work three times as hard as men but politics it is almost like men’s club. We need to galvanize enthusiasm and see what we can do to support each other, Schaack said.
MacDella Cooper, political leader and founder of the Movement for One Liberia (MOL), said that her own bitter experiences with Liberia’s political environment and the generally unfavorable reactions of male-dominated politics prompted her to establish the MOL.
“It is time for Liberia to wake up and catch up with the rest of the world. More and more countries, like Rwanda, are encouraging women’s participation in the Legislature and politics. I hope that we can begin to do that in the upcoming senatorial elections and beyond.”
She sees that women are generally welcomed into the party’s dynamics, but only to help with organizing, logistics, and other important tasks, but not as candidates.
A lot is at stake if women are not promoted in politics, she said, and believes it is unfortunate that the 37% adult innocence rate and 62% of people who cannot read and write may not fully understand why it is important to promote women in politics.
“We are continuously educating our old mothers that if they continue to vote for these men who will be giving them small pocket change, and if they don’t put women in power, their children will continue to sell bitter balls 20 to 30 years from now and their daughters will be forced into early marriage.”
“I want to encourage women to go and vote women. The men will not vote for us. It is going to take women to stand up and say, ‘I am going to make sure that women are represented.’ This is a critical time, and we have a lot to lose if we don’t put women in the Senate.”
“Vote us, put us to a test”
Lena Cummings, Program Advisor for Women’s NGO Secretariat of Liberia (WONGOSOL), agreed.
“When we speak as women, we speak as a group, not for our personal interest, but we look at the whole. If we have more women in decisions making bodies in this nation, I think we will be like Rwanda.”
“I just want the Liberian people to know that women make good leaders, and our leadership is based on added values, so vote us, put us to a test,” Cummings said.
She encouraged young women to not just isolate themselves in the women’s wing of their political party but take on leadership roles within the party to build their name and track record.
Augustine Akoi, founder of the Better Future Foundation (BFF), said that he, as a man, is troubled by the lack of women candidates on some political parties’ lists of candidates.
“It bothers me that some political parties do not promote women on their lists. As much as I want to give my vote for a woman, if the political parties do not give the opportunity by featuring women candidates on the lists, how can I vote for a woman?”
Akoi believes that the situation is not going to change anytime soon for Liberian women, unless there is a drastic women movement to demand action.
“So, women, come with your own ballot box, put it at the Fish Market so that all eyes will see it, and let people know that Liberian women have issues with the state of current affairs in the country. Women, you must do that. If you don’t do that, candidates will just take your vote away. The women in current positions of leadership must take responsibility and carry out mass grass roots activities to mobilize and educate the women to bridge the gap that disconnects and divides. Traditionally in our African culture, people feel that women are not meant to be leaders, so there is a lot to be done to change this mentality.’’ Akoi said.