International Alert recently published a report examining women’s representation in parliament in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Drawing on local views, Women, elections and violence in West Africa provides an assessment of the current state of women’s political participation in the two countries ahead of their forthcoming elections in 2011 and 2012.
The report identifies the increasing opportunities for women in politics that have emerged since the conflict ended and shows how other accompanying trends affect their greater participation. The paper then highlights the key issues on women’s minds ahead of the forthcoming elections, before proposing a set of recommended actions to advance women’s political participation further in the two countries.
The period after a conflict provides a unique opportunity to reform political institutions and processes in a way that will increase the opportunities for women to participate in decision-making. Much of the international peacebuilding effort to build sustainable and peaceful societies has focused on seizing this opportunity. Elections, for example, offer women the chance to translate the new roles they assumed out of necessity during conflict into formal political representation. However, elections also expose women to lingering discriminatory mindsets and cultural practices that are considerable barriers to their greater political participation.
Women’s experiences during the conflicts in each country helped women gain an awareness of their own potential power and encouraged them to participate in the post-conflict election processes. However, women won less than 15 percent of parliamentary seats in the first post-conflict elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as many female candidates lacked the capacity to challenge their male rivals. In Sierra Leone, this created a perception of women as ineffective politicians that led in turn to even less representation in parliament after the next election and has contributed to a “glass ceiling” preventing women’s future participation. In Liberia, the election of Africa’s first female president has created a positive “demonstration effect” that has significantly improved conditions for women’s future political participation.
Cultural marginalisation has severely limited women’s educational opportunities, resulting in high illiteracy levels and a lack of qualifications and skills. These factors block women’s participation, both formally and informally. Traditional and religious practices relegate women to traditional household roles, often leaving them in fear of rejection or even a violent reaction from their families if they attempt to enter politics. Women who do try to enter politics also face discriminatory attitudes from male-dominated political parties that control the formal political sphere in both countries. Despite their public commitments on the subject, parties have done little to promote women’s participation in party structures and as candidates for elections.
Civil society in both countries continues to play a vital role in furthering women’s participation in politics and elections. Much of this work is conducted by national women’s groups – often in partnership, or with technical assistance, from international actors – and has focused on harnessing a sense of solidarity among women to overcome the obstacles they encounter. However, the nature of international support has limited its intended impact and in some cases served to undermine the unity of civil society. Whether this unity can be restored and utilised ahead of the forthcoming elections in Liberia in 2011 and in Sierra Leone in 2012 will have a significant impact on women’s ability to overcome the barriers they will face.
The overwhelming view from both countries is that women’s political participation is improving, but that significant obstacles remain in the way of ensuring that the electoral process is not undermined by political violence and that women have the best chance to seize the opportunities that have been created.