Women, elections and violence in West Africa: Assessing women’s political participation in Liberia and Sierra Leone

Women, elections and violence in West Africa: Assessing women's political participation in Liberia and Sierra Leone

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.

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 these two countries 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.