As eleven years of peaceful leadership comes to a close, the world reflects back on what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has achieved for women’s rights and gender justice in Liberia. As the very first female head of state in post-independent Africa, President Sirleaf stood as a beacon of hope for women and girls by forging a path for gender equality, since her inauguration in 2006. Her unfettered efforts which strived towards the protection and promotion of women became recognised universally when she jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Liberia’s political history has been volatile, oscillating between tumultuous civil wars towards a more peaceful direction in 2003. Societal unrest became apparent when the then President William Tolbert was killed in a coup d'état in 1980, led by Samuel Doe. Doe’s corrupt dictatorship catalysed the First Liberian Civil War spanning from late 1989 until 1997 by the invasion of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) from Côte d’Ivoire. A lawless and unforgiving war broke out with conflict not only occurring between Doe’s Forces and the NPFL, but becoming asymmetrical and complex through the insurgency of different militia. Eventually, peace came about with the contribution of the Economic Community of West African States but this was unfortunately short-lived. The Second Civil War erupted in 1999 when sectarian groups emerged in the north of Liberia. Again, chaos unleashed lasting for a further four years.
Akin to Liberia’s history, President Sirleaf’s past too has seen strife. After being educated at Harvard, Sirleaf went on to become the country’s Finance Minister throughout both Tolbert and Doe’s ruling. Being a woman within West African politics inevitably came with resistance and Sirleaf found herself incarcerated twice and exiled from Liberia, seeking refuge in the US and Kenya. Eventually, she ran for President in 2005 and succeeded against her opponent, George Weah, in 2006.
By this point, Liberia had suffered fourteen years of intense and intermittent violence. Although the whole country was in political and economic turmoil, it was the Liberian women who had felt the brutal weapon of war most pertinently; reportedly 7% of the Liberian female population were systematically raped throughout both wars. President Sirleaf was instrumental in bringing the continually hushed issue of gender violence and justice to attention, not only within Africa, but among the international community too. By mandating the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to have a gender-focus, emphasis was placed on the violence towards women and children, as well as the broader issue of gender inequality. The President pushed further in encouraging women’s political participation, and the TRC Act, under Sirleaf’s command, also directed that women must be included in the Commission. Furthermore, the TRC Gender Committee was established to advocate the involvement of women in Truth Commissions, public hearings, and the general operations of the TRC, helping to further promote women in Liberian politics.
Not only did President Sirleaf strengthen the position of women politically, but also within wider society. The Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia, commonly known as AFELL, campaigns for the rights of women and strives to increase public awareness of the need for gender justice. Their triumphs have been illustrious; from winning the right to prosecute rape cases which were previously restricted to lawyers of the state, to working in association with Sirleaf’s government to raise the sentence for convicted rapists. They have also driven to eliminate the traditional stigma surrounding rape through their 2010 Domestic Violence campaign, where advocacy and support were made accessible for victims. Education equality has been another growing success in President Sirleaf’s fight for gender justice. A dramatic increase in female education enrolment was recorded after the President came into power, with an influx of girls attending primary and secondary school and more women signing up for adult learning programmes. Similarly, it has been recognised that women have the opportunity to now embrace business and trade through securing banks loans to buy stock from cheaper countries to sell on in Liberia. For all intents and purposes, it is clear that with Presidents Sirleaf’s leadership, an environment where women can flourish through empowerment has been formed.
Through her grassroots approach to advocacy for gender equality, Liberian women view the first female President in Africa as a ceaseless example for what women can achieve. With the Liberian general election fast approaching and set for October this year, there is hope that whomever the successful candidate is will pass on the baton with the same unwavering determination for gender equality as their predecessor.
This is the part of a series of articles dedicated to highlighting influential women. Like us on Facebook and join the conversation on Twitter with #BeBoldForChange and #BV_Sirleaf
Olivia Doherty is an aspiring lawyer and currently training to be a specialist adviser for Citizens Advice. In 2015 she graduated from the University of Manchester with a LLB in Law and an LLM in International Law and Security. She is particularly interested in transitional justice within international humanitarian law.
Written by Olivia Doherty and published on 05-April-2017