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 decisionmaking. 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.
Despite notable positive developments in many post-conflict countries in Africa, women’s representation in the parliaments of Liberia and Sierra Leone remains low and elections are still a considerable source of tension.
This paper draws on local views to provide a largely qualitative assessment of the current state of women’s political participation in the two countries ahead of their forthcoming elections. It initially identifies the expanding opportunities for women that have emerged since conflict ended and shows how 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.
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 postconflict 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. Attempts to establish new structures and mechanisms that would expand women’s participation in decision-making in each country have had mixed results.
Liberia and Sierra Leone have formally committed to taking affirmative action to guarantee a minimum level of women’s political representation. However, steps in this direction have not actually been taken, due largely to resistance from male-dominated political parties and a lack of political will. The main parties in each country have failed to meet their own voluntary commitments for 30 percent of their candidates to be women.
Ongoing constitutional review processes in each country present an opportunity to establish formal quotas, but are unlikely to be concluded before the next elections. The nature of national political structures has a major bearing on the opportunities for women to access and participate in governance structures outside the capital. In Sierra Leone, decentralisation has established elected local government that has provided women with invaluable political experience at the local level.
However, it has also created tensions with the existing informal governance structures which have exposed women to intimidation. In Liberia, the inspiration provided by an effective female president has created a sense that women can now strive for any position in society.
On the other hand, opportunities for women to participate in politics are limited by the country’s centralised political structure. 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 will have a significant impact on women’s ability to overcome the barriers they will face.
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 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.
The first-past-the-post electoral system employed in both countries is widely considered to restrict women’s chances of getting elected. Women lack the finances to run effective constituency campaigns and to compete with established “strongmen” in their communities. Female candidates and their supporters are routinely confronted with gender-based intimidation that creates an aggressive climate and pushes some women to abandon their campaigns. This kind of intimidation is more severe in Sierra Leone, where all-male secret societies use threats of violence to scare off female candidates and their supporters.
Women who have been elected to office often lack the political knowledge, experience and skills required to influence decision-making on issues of importance to women in male-dominated parliaments. The 2012 elections in Sierra Leone will be the first time that local elections take place simultaneously with presidential and parliamentary elections. There is a general assumption that the elections will feature a significant increase in women’s participation but this is countered by concerns that the pervading atmosphere may prevent women from attaining greater representation. Hopefully, the formal political experience gained by women at the local level will transfer to greater representation in the national Parliament. Nonetheless, women’s lack of independent wealth and political skills continue to act as major impediments to progress. There are major concerns that many of the aspiring candidates will not secure political party support or will abandon their campaigns as a result of severe intimidation.
The lack of a rapid and effective government response to recent incidents of political violence is fuelling a culture of impunity, rumour-mongering and fear that the forthcoming election could spark a return to organised violence. The inability of state institutions to confront political violence and intimidation could deter some women from participating in the 2012 elections.
Exaggerated fears of violence created by poor reporting that obscures the facts and is insensitive about past incidents can also serve as a barrier to women’s political participation. Liberia’s 2011 elections will be the first time one democratically elected government follows another. There is general confidence that more women will be involved in the election than ever before, and that it will take place in an environment more conducive to their participation than previously. However, there are some fears that political violence could occur.
The relative success of an incumbent female president is increasing the chances that people - especially men - are now willing to accept women as leaders and vote them into office. However, there is considerable anxiety that lack of female solidarity will hinder women’s chances. There is greater pressure on political parties to select female candidates and there is evidence of their increased willingness to do so. The lack of follow-up to the Truth and Reconciliation Report on war-time atrocities has contributed to concerns over whether the country’s social reconciliation is being sufficiently prioritised, and lingering social divisions could contribute to organised violence around the election. Some people have expressed concern that the ruling party will engage in voter fraud and that violence could result if the under-resourced and over-stretched state bodies organising the election are unable to deal with it. 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.