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What Liberia Can Teach Us About Electing Women

In 2005, the women of Liberia elected Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first female president of an African nation, and we can learn a lot by examining how they did it. In a recent article for the New York Times, Helene Cooper, a reporter who grew up in Liberia before immigrating to the United States in 1980, tells the story of how Liberian women got Sirleaf elected, highlighting valuable lessons for American women.

When the Liberian election took place in 2005, Liberia had just emerged from a brutal civil war. Nearly everyone had been a victim or witness, if not a perpetrator, of extreme acts of violence. Children were kidnapped and turned into child soldiers; family members were brutally murdered while survivors were forced to watch. Cooper reports that “more than 70 percent of Liberian women were raped . . . while horrified children were forced to watch their sisters, mothers, and grandmothers gang-raped in front of them.”

Cooper notes that while the women of Liberia blamed the men who waged the war for the violence and brutality, when it came time for the first postwar presidential election, initially only 15 percent of the women were registered to vote. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated global technocrat with significant government experience, was running against a field of men—with an uneducated soccer star in the lead. A group of women leaders got worried and went to work to organize women to vote for Sirleaf.

How did a small group of women in Liberia get enough women to register and vote twice in two rounds of voting? The problem in Liberia for getting women to register and vote was time. The men running for president were holding mass rallies, which women did not have time to attend. The majority of women worked in markets to earn their living, which is equivalent to low-wage service jobs in our country, and they were responsible for the child care in their families. Realizing that there was a need for a more effective strategy for engaging women, Sirleaf’s supporters organized to

  • Use radio stations to broadcast their message
  • Provide babysitters and market-stall tenders to free up the women to register and vote
  • Send women into rural areas with bullhorns to stand along the road and broadcast their message of the need for a female president
  • Organize women’s rallies and pass out clean drinking water at the rallies
  • Go door to door passing out t-shirts and flyers
  • Offer young men money to buy a beer in exchange for their voter ID cards to ensure that the men could not vote—not something we could do here, but very creative, nonetheless

The result, ultimately, was that 51 percent of the registered voters were women. On the second ballot, 80 percent of the Liberian women voters elected Sirleaf, who won 59.4 percent of the total vote.

What lessons can we draw for electing a woman president? We have not had a brutal civil war, but women in the United States do face deeply entrenched problems in this country that male leaders have ignored for decades. We need to join together to elect women to all levels of government to represent our interests, such as

  • Closing the gender wage gap (which is much worse for women of color)
  • Ensuring that our workplaces are free of sexual harassment by eliminating nondisclosure agreements that silence women when we are harassed and keep the harassers protected and in place
  • Subsidizing child care and instituting paid family leave policies

The women of Liberia have given us a wonderful example of what we can accomplish when we work together. What would you like to achieve as part of a united coalition?

 

Photo courtesy of Center for Global Development. CC by 2.0

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