FEATURE:The Effects of Money and Traditions on Females as they Seek Elected Political Office in Liberia
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and NDI’s VAW-PM Program.
Written by: Regina B. Walker, Former Representative Candidate District 2, Grand Kru County 2023 General Elections in Liberia
MONROVIA Female participation in elections in Liberia is on the increase. More and more women continue to venture into politics during every election year in Liberia, but victory has been an uphill task for them. They experience many obstacles as they journey to the legislature; marginalization by their male counterparts and political parties at primaries and the polls, stereotyping, the effects of traditional norms and money, character assignation, and many such abuses. This story tells mine and the experiences of other former female candidates who took part in the October 2023 elections in Liberia and the effect that money and traditional norms had on our participation.
My experience and the experiences of other women candidates in the 2023 General elections in Liberia have brought us to the common understanding that among other intimidations that we encountered during the election process, money and traditions were the far most determining factors that contributed to our failures.
There is a saying in the Kpelle (one of sixteen tribes of Liberia) vernacular which says, ‘kukujumuku’, translated, ‘if you are not inside, you don’t know’. I’m saying this because if you have not participated in elections as a female, you will not understand what women go through in elections. If women who participated in previous elections had had the opportunities to pen their stories, perhaps this would have helped many women who participated in these elections. I hope, therefore, as I write mine and the stories of others, women who anticipate taking part in future elections take clues to prepare themselves.
Liberians went to the polls on October 10, 2023, to elect a president and vice president, fifteen (15) senators and seventy-three (73) representatives. In these elections, there were a total of one hundred and sixty (160) women candidates; one presidential, seven senatorial, and one hundred fifty-two representatives. Of this number, only seven were elected; one senator and six representatives, giving us just 3 seats for women out of 30 seats at the Liberian Senate and 6 seats for women at the House of Representatives out of 73 seats! These bizarre results when it comes to women vying for elected political office in Liberia are not unique to 2023. This has been the case with previous elections.
We can first establish that Liberian women, in the history of Liberia, have not built interest in serving the country as legislatures for many decades until after the Liberian civil unrest. But before then, Liberian elected her first female Legislature, Madam Sally Howe who was elected as a member of the House of Representatives in 1971, representing Maryland County in South East Liberia. Then there was Honorable Grace Minor who served as the first female President Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate, Ruth Sando Perry, who was also the first Liberian female to serve as Chairperson of Interim Governing Council of State during the civil unrest in Liberia, followed by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia who became the first democratically elected female president of Africa.
The successes of these women along with the work of national and international women’s groups and organizations triggered the desire of Liberian women to serve as lawmakers and presidents. We appreciate these women and organizations. Also to support more women in the legislature; the National Elections Commission (NEC) of Liberia signed a document with political parties, mandating them to endeavor to have 30% of their candidates as females. Liberian women’s organizations advocated and it was accepted that there should be 30% of women lawmakers at the legislature.
With an overwhelming call in Liberia for the necessity of more women at the legislature and the growth of women legislative candidates in election years, the Liberian men and some Liberian traditions have over the period continuously intimidated women to discourage them from taking part in elections. Because of these treatments against women, many failed to make the second attempt in elections once defeated. These factors have discouraged women and also contributed greatly to their poor performance in elections in Liberia; character assassination, profiling, money, and tradition, among others. But of all these, money and tradition have proven to be the most determining factors in the failure of women to be elected.
The very first intimidation that hits many women when they decide to seek elected office is tradition. When you first break the news to your family, you receive a very cold response. ‘Politics is not for women’. ‘When you join politics they will kill you.’ You can’t be my wife and be a politician.’ ‘As a lawmaker, you need to know the tradition, sometimes some matters are decided in traditional council and only men can be there.’ ‘Our community is not ready for women politicians.’ These are some discouraging words you receive from your family, friends, and your community. If you ignore all of these and decide to go against their decision, they then develop another form of intimidation as was the case in the 2020 Mid-Term elections in Gbarpolu County, when the community brought out the ‘devil’, a traditional masquerade amid vote counting. In this tradition, it is forbidden for women to be out when the ‘devil’ comes out. And what is the devil doing out on election day?
By tradition, men agree that women’s place is the home, so women‘s intimidation by traditional norms is not limited to elections. According to some traditional norms in Liberia, a woman’s position does not count when it comes to decision-making. The legislature makes decisions that affect the town, the county, and the country. The Liberian man will quote the Bible just to intimidate the female; ‘the Bible said, man is the head’, but what they refuse to read further is that woman was created as a companion to man, for which she was taken from man’s ribs by his side! If then, I am your companion in life, my decisions matter, I must be productive for us to jointly support the family; I must have the right to take up a position in society, a position that will find me in the office, a decision that will see me as a doctor, as a lawyer, as a lawmaker. The constitution of the Republic of Liberia did not limit sex to any position in the country, why then, should the tradition that falls under the might of the constitution, limit women’s participation in politics?
Now, having decided that traditions cannot stop you, you have arrived at the elections process; community engagements, travels, communications, primaries, campaigns, and finally elections. All of these need money!
Your family, friends, and communities have tried to stop you through traditional means, but you decided otherwise, and are now engaged in the process. What they then withhold from you is their financial support! Because they disagree with you contest, they then refuse you financial support. Your first step to the financial base is stalled.
Most Liberian women who contested as lawmakers in previous elections and the most recent in 2023 did not have money. Their male counterparts, political parties, and the electorates took advantage of this situation and used it as a determining factor to refuse women on their party’s ticket or to elect them as their representatives. Even with a memorandum of understanding that 30% of their candidates should be women, political parties refuse but rather prefer male candidates on their tickets.
Most women did not have money to compete at primaries; therefore they contested on tickets of parties that gave them priority due to the 30% women clause. Political parties in the 2023 elections did not support their candidates’ campaigns. You are on a party ticket but you do everything as an independent candidate!
During these elections, I and other women have learned that political parties fail to elect women on their party tickets because they believe that women do not have money which contributes to political strength to compete against a male counterpart in an election, and because of the lack of money, they say, women become ‘hard to sell politicians’. This is an injustice! Women in turn, turn out to be very productive partisans. Due to these beliefs that are demeaning to womanhood, parties favor men over women to contest on a party ticket. It is seldom that women come out victorious out of primaries; they win either by consensus or if no man is contesting in that district.
I experienced a situation where I could not make it on a particular political party ticket because a male counterpart felt that I, being a female, would have been a stepping block to his election; he therefore induced the local leadership of the party with money! They created so many bottle necks! My story with this situation was not unique as more and more women explain similar stories. This time, it was not at a primary but consensus as well.
Having talked about my and others’ experiences regarding the impediments that money and tradition play as women seek political positions in Liberia, I want to recommend the following which I believe can improve the election of women to the legislature in future elections in Liberia.
From my and other female candidates’ experiences, we have realized that political parties did not give financial support to their candidates during the campaign process in elections in 2023. Notwithstanding, it is good to contest on a political party ticket. We have also learned that besides training, national and international organizations do not support women candidates financially during elections. Women should therefore brace themselves for the challenges as they plan to contest in future elections.
With my and other women’s experiences during the elections of 2023, I can make the following recommendations which I believe will form part of the process that will see the success of women in elections as it regards the effect of money and traditions as women seek elected political office in Liberia.
- Those national and international organizations that support women in politics go beyond the training of women; they should develop programs that will educate traditional leaders on the rights of women and the opportunities it brings to the constituents when women are elected to the legislature or any other political office. This activity would sell women out in a positive way so that during political engagements the community is already aware that women, like men, also have the right to be elected as lawmakers despite their traditional barriers.
- While we accept the fact that the elections laws of Liberian forbid sponsorship of elections by non-Liberian entities and individuals to support candidates, let these organizations at least support women through projects that will give them visible marks in their districts, constituents, and counties.
- To be familiar with your constituent, and start your process long before time, I can suggest you start 2024 with your engagements if you want to contest in 2029. A five-year interval is never too long if you want to be successful in your elections. Start early.
- And finally, my observation during the past elections tells me that for a woman to be financially strong if she desires to partake in future elections, she must depend on her savings. No one will give you any substantial financial aid in Liberia when you are a candidate; not friends, not families, not organizations, not even the party. Forming a sub-region organization or women’s group cannot help you. Establish an account now and not at the eleventh hour.