It was election day and we were observing voting in Bong County, Liberia. Registered voters were asked to cast a vote for a Presidential, a Senate, and a House of Representative candidate of their choice. Entering a polling station in the outskirts of Gbarnga, we saw the presiding officer standing in the middle of the room instructing a voter who was already in the polling booth, how to mark and fold the ballots. “They do not know what to do behind the curtain”, he said turning to us. Meanwhile, everything in the polling station had come to a standstill. Everybody’s attention was on the voter behind the curtain. Outside, a long queue of voters was waiting to cast their vote. Eventually, the voter, an older woman, came out of the polling booth, cast her ballots, and left the polling station.
Liberian women empowered by a female president
Liberia was the first country in Africa to have an elected female head of state. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf served as the president of Liberia for two consecutive terms, from January 2006 to January 2018. The country was emerging from the ashes of two brutal civil wars (1989-1997, 1999-2003) and needed a head of state with experience in governance and public administration. Sirleaf made a point of empowering Liberian women in all areas of life. During her Administration, women headed the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Commerce, Youth and Sports, and Gender and Development. Five out of fifteen county Superintendents (Governors) were women.
Also, a fair number of traditional leaders were, and still are women. The reliance on traditional leaders to mobilize communities for collective action is common in developing countries. Such leaders are argued to be effective in mobilizing collective action because of their ability to appeal to custom and long-established norms as a source of legitimacy. Principally, they are tasked to ensure the well-being of their communities, by engaging in dispute resolution and the maintenance of peace.
At the same time, the poorest and least educated people in Liberia and other parts of Africa were, and still are women and children.
Women in the 2023 General elections
In the 2023 Liberian General elections, only two out of twenty presidential candidates were women and scored poorly receiving 0,33% and 0,20% of the votes, respectively. In Congress, only one out of fifteen newly elected Senators and eight out of seventy-three elected House Representatives, are female.
At this date, only three out of fifteen county Superintendents were women. While women were well represented on the political campaign teams, there were few female political party chairpersons or campaign managers, nationally and regionally.
Likewise, in election management bodies women were underrepresented in leading positions. Certainly, the president of the National Elections Commission was a woman. However, only two out of nineteen electoral magistrates were women. And whereas women were well represented as voters and polling staff, they were underrepresented in higher positions, as presiding officers, election supervisors and election coordinators.
Experience shows that when women fully participate in political and public affairs, the debate becomes more inclusive. With full, or gender balanced representation, democracy is stronger. To get there, conscient effort is required.
The United Nations has a tall order of achieving gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. We are very far from this goal. Currently, only 26,4% of the world’s legislators are women. The proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments in Africa varies widely from one country to another. At the top end, we find Rwanda (61,25%) and Senegal (46,06%), and at the bottom-line, Gambia (8,62%) and Nigeria (3,91%). Parallel to this, only 26 out of 193 UN member states have a female head of state. In Africa, only Ethiopia and Tanzania, or 2 out of 54 countries, have a female head of state.
This said, lack of political representation is only one of the many problems women face in Liberia and other countries, where illiteracy, early pregnancies and instances of gender-based violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) are still common. In everyday life, women are often considered as second-class citizens, whereas women holding a leadership position must constantly prove their worth; this is what some Liberian women told me when discussing with them.
Women’s leadership – the other side of the coin
In fact, women’s leadership is a contested area. In many parts of the world, gender norms persist, and there is prejudice against women’s leadership and women’s participation in political and public life. Changing gender norms is very context specific. In some places, it is enough to change the laws to change the norms. In other places, the norms must change for the laws to change.
In Africa as well as elsewhere, women often face physical, economic, and sexual violence because of their participation in politics. In social media, female candidates frequently become targets of cyberbullying and harassment. The lack of economic means, patronage, and prejudice are real barriers that hinder women’s participation. A part of the problem is that in many places few women vote for women candidates.
Kenya proves that quotas and other measures work
When there is political will, there is a way. Legislative quotas, gender balanced recruitment policies, funding and training for women leaders and candidates, and robust civic education programs are some vetted affirmative action measures. In Kenya, where a gender quota to boost women’s political representation was introduced in 2010, the National Assembly is currently 23,28% female. Even if this is below Kenya’s own constitutional commitments, it is a step ahead. Other ways to improve the situation of women in politics and public affairs, include implementation of capacity building for prospective female candidates. Measures for higher integration of women in political parties should be taken throughout the electoral cycle.
The author is an Anthropologist and Election observer. She has participated in more than twenty EU and OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Missions, in Africa, Latin America, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Autumn 2023 she was part of the EU EOM to the General elections in Liberia as Long-term observer.
 The Senate is composed of 30 members, two from each county, who serve a nine-year term. 15 Senate seats stood for election in 2023.
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1248493/percentage-of-women-in-national-parliaments-in-african-countries/ (accessed on 10 December 2023).