Even with peace, Liberia’s women struggle

A conversation with activist Leymah Gbowee
From Africa Renewal: 
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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been inspiring women across Liberia—and the continentSince she was inaugurated in 2006 as Africa’s first elected female president,
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been inspiring women across Liberia—and the continent.
Photograph: Panos / Tim A. Hetherington

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.

Thousands of UN peacekeepers and police remain in the country to provide security and train a new army and police force. 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 health, education and administration, 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 more generally. Despite the many problems that faced Liberia on inauguration day in January 2006, Ms. Gbowee gives the president generally high marks for her leadership.

The fragile peace that followed the 2003 removal of former President Charles Taylor has held. The country’s shattered economy is sputtering back to life as displaced people have returned to their farms and businesses and commerce has restarted. Schools, clinics and government offices have reopened, damaged infrastructure is under repair and the government is seeking to reform state institutions, speed economic recovery and promote national reconciliation with the help of the United Nations and Liberia’s development partners.

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. Excluded from internationally-sponsored peace negotiations, the women nevertheless found ways to pressure the leaders of the warring factions and are widely credited with keeping the talks from collapsing. Those efforts were later chronicled in the award-winning documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell*.

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!

2 Liberian schoolgirls in front of a blackboardSince the end of the war and the election of a female president, many Liberian girls have been encouraged to enroll in school and to broaden their horizons.

Photograph: UN / Christopher Herwig

“This was the most amazing thing for me. When I was growing up girls aspired to be the chaplain or the treasurer of the class. You really didn’t see them stepping up to say, ‘I want to be president.’ But immediately after the election of this woman, you had all these little girls saying, ‘If Ellen can be president, I want to be another Ellen’.”

School enrolment surging

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 Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. 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.

“You also have high enrolment rates of women in adult literacy programmes,” Ms. Gbowee continues. “Most of them tell you, ‘By the end of this presidency in two or three years, I want to be able to write when I go to the bank and not use my thumbprint.’ So there is just this whole wave of things that women want to do. Some of these girls who never really thought about high school are now saying, ‘I want to go to college and be somebody’.”

Even in the rural areas, where tradition and poverty often combine to keep girls from school, she explains, there is a new assertiveness and self-confidence. “We’ve done leadership projects with girls in three rural regions. In two of those regions the results were fantastic. The girls who completed high school were looking for scholarships or going back to relatives and saying, ‘I have to go to university’.”

Progress and problems

Whether Liberia’s shattered education system will be able to accommodate the new aspirations, however, is an open question. There has been progress. School fees were abolished in 2006, spurring an 82 per cent increase in primary school enrolments in just two years. Spending on education reached 8.6 per cent of the budget in 2008, second only to health as the single largest budget line.

But according to a recent report on progress towards the internationally accepted Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include universal primary school enrolment by 2015, fewer than 40 per cent of Liberia’s children were enrolled at the level appropriate to their age in 2007 (if older students enrolled in lower levels are counted, the overall enrolment rate is about 86 per cent). It is unlikely that the country will reach full primary school enrolment by the 2015 target date.

That 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. The country’s dire financial circumstances are also slowing progress, as are the limits on government borrowing and spending that are part of an agreement with the IMF. As the economy improves, the government noted in its most recent MDG progress report, “the binding fiscal constraints that frame the [IMF] programme will need to be relaxed to facilitate increased production and access to basic socio-economic services.”

Liberia does have a good chance of achieving equal primary school enrolment between boys and girls by 2015, another MDG goal, because of the increase in female attendance and the adoption of girls’ education as a national priority by the government in 2006.

Violent backlash

There are also signs of 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 continuing high rates of rape and sexual assault, she says, partly reflect that change in attitude. “We believe strongly that these are some of the backlashes for women getting overly empowered and really stepping out to do things they never really ventured to do. So yes, we have women being empowered. But we have serious concerns about what women are going through in their home setting and in the community.”

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. We have this huge surge of girls going to school and women are excelling, but the collective way we embraced peace building is disintegrating because everyone is seeing herself as the next big thing.”

Breaking new ground

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. “There is strong backing from women across all countries to see that she succeeds, because they believe that her success is critical for sending other women to the presidency.

“If she does good, everybody — women, men, youth, boys and girls — will see that as an example to follow in other areas. If she doesn’t, then the chances for other women are slim. We think people are really watching. And she has emboldened women in other countries to step out. What we as women need to do is take serious advantage of that. Let’s put them out there, turn it to our advantage and start making some serious gains.”

* For more information about the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell visit the website.