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Women’s equality: Not in Liberia

Women’s equality: Not in Liberia

In Liberia, women are yet to take their rightful and equal place in society, and Johnson Sirleaf’s presence has not translated into Liberian women rising from the grassroots to be equally represented in decision-making forums. In October 2017, a new government will be elected and Johnson Sirleaf’s term will come to an end.

The extent of gender inequalities varies throughout Liberia in regard to status, region, rural/urban areas, and traditional cultures. In general, women in Liberia have less access to education, health care, property, and justice when compared to men. Liberia suffered two devastating civil wars from 1989–1996 and 1999–2003. The wars left the country nearly destroyed with minimal infrastructure and thousands dead. Liberia has a Human Development Report ranking of 174 out of 187 and a Gender Inequality Index rank of 143 out of 147.

Despite the progress of Liberia’s economy since the end of its second civil war in 2003, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world today with high levels of poverty and deprivation, exacerbated by economic crises and increasing food price

The Institute for Security Study published the following article:

During Liberia’s civil war, women emerged as the flag bearers of peace through the ‘Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’ initiative at the climax of the 14-year conflict. Through their collective action, women were instrumental in ensuring that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2003) was signed, which was crucial to paving the way to sustainable peace.

However, despite this prominent role in driving peace, greater empowerment for women on the ground is yet to happen. The Liberian National Gender Policy in 2009 noted that women were lagging behind in development, and that gender disparities and imbalances were evident in everyday life.

During Liberia’s civil war, women emerged as the flag bearers of peace

Although women account for 54% of the labour force, they remain severely marginalised, and lack the means to ensure a sustainable livelihood because they are underpaid and work within the informal sector. In terms of illiteracy rates, women account for 60%, and the maternal mortality rate in the country is very high when compared to global figures. Furthermore, 48% of Liberian girls fall pregnant before the age 18, which contributes to high levels of unemployment among young women.

Sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation is also very high in the country, especially among young girls. Sexual violence was rampant during the war, and 13 years later, rape and sexual violence remain a major problem.

In 2009, the Liberian government developed a four-year National Action Plan to respond to the recommendations of the United Nations resolution 1325, which pertains to women in peace and security. Yet four years on, little has been implemented.

This is partly because the Gender Policy has not been consistently integrated into national legislature. For instance, the Inheritance Law of Liberia states that a young girl is eligible for marriage at 16 years old, whereas the Penal Code of 2005 stipulates that the age of consent is 18. These pieces of legislation are therefore at odds with one another, and implementing them consistently is not possible.

54% of Liberia’s labour force are women, but they remain severely marginalised

Research carried out by the Institute for Security Studies in Monrovia in November 2016 identified additional challenges. These included awareness-raising and educating the public on these new laws, as well as negative cultural traditions that are at odds with human and women’s rights.

It is clear that much progress remains to be made to improve gender disparity and place women rights at the forefront of policy development.

Current trends don’t bode well.

During the 2011 elections, there seemed to be a growing aversion to appointing women in positions of political leadership. The percentage of women in the National Legislature dropped from 14% to 11.8%. The number of women in the Senate dropped from five to four, while the number of women in the House of Representatives dropped from nine to eight.

Two out of nine women representatives of the 52nd Legislature were re-elected, and an additional six women were newly elected.

A total of 33 female lawmakers lost their seats in the elections, indicating a deteriorating situation where female politicians were losing momentum within their counties. Currently, women hold only one in nine Parliamentary seats.

Liberia is currently listed at number 149 out of 193 on the global ranking of women representation in Parliament. Some of the African countries that do notably better are Rwanda, which is first on the list and Senegal that is seventh.

However, ensuring women empowerment requires more than just adopting quota systems for women in power. If Liberia is serious about addressing inequality, it must first address the social and cultural impediments that prevent women from developing a career and obtaining gainful employment. Civic education implemented at the end of the war in various counties has not yet yielded positive results, due to entrenched traditional norms.

Ensuring women empowerment requires more than just quota systems

As the 2017 elections approach, successfully improving gender equality in Liberia will require a two-pronged approach.

First, women on the ground must be empowered. Women in leadership positions must identify the challenges that stand in the way of empowering women at the grassroots level.

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