Gender equality still faces many hurdles in sub-Saharan Africa, but Liberia has been able to overcome some of these obstacles. Electing the first female president on the African continent has helped initiate a new awareness about gender barriers faced by women in Liberia. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has helped encourage women to practice their human rights and is working to change old laws that limit women’s roles in society. Additionally, she is working to combat domestic violence which has been especially problematic following years of civil conflict.
The election of President Sirleaf in 2005 was historic for Liberia and Africa. Not only was she the first democratically elected female president on the continent, she was also the first elected leader following 14 years of civil war—the anticipated leader to bring peace to the country. Having studied at Harvard University and worked in various roles within former Liberian administrations and the World Bank, she brings extensive international awareness and connections with her to the presidency.
While President Sirleaf is not without her critics, including a recent report by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to investigate the causes and persons responsible for the civil wars, she continues to help her country develop. This commission recently listed the President as one of those who should be barred form public office for 30 years for her support of former President Charles Taylor. The Commission has been criticized for being politically motivated. Nonetheless, the commission’s recommendations must be approved by the legislature before any final action is taken.
Despite this report, many Liberian and international leaders still support her work and have admired her ability to maintain peace in the country and to advance the level of development.
In addition to a national female leader, I was fortunate to have met a female town chief in rural Lofa County who has helped to challenge stereotypes even while she faces personal struggles. Sonia Bidi has broken gender barriers by becoming the town chief of Luyama. In the rural areas, the role of town chief is normally reserved for an elder man from the community. Sonia was recently chosen to be the first female chief after the previous chief was asked to leave his post due to some controversy within the community.
Perhaps most challenging, after returning from refuge during the war, Sonia found her house destroyed and has not yet been able to rebuild. Thus, she is living with other friends and relatives until such time as she can reconstruct her home.
While President Sirleaf and Town Chief Bidi have broken gender barriers, there are still many challenges ahead for women in Liberia. Many girls and women faced sexual violence during the war, which caused great trauma. In addition, access to education, health care and adequate nutrition is still problematic for many, even those in major towns. As mentioned earlier, domestic violence is common and many women do not know their rights related to this problem.
Though Liberia has helped raise the bar in Africa, there is still much work to be done to help the country heal and rebuild. Women will be vital to the country’s future—in various roles within families, communities and the government.
Posted By Adam Welti
Posted Jul 20th, 2009