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Women during a training in Liberia

‘My sisters, my daughters, my friends: find your voice’

ZOA supports women in Liberia to find their voice and take up leadership roles. Efforts on paper fail to recognize women’s complex lived realities in the country and the challenges they face in practice. However, there is hope for a positive change, states Marleen Spieker from ZOA Liberia.

ZOA: hope for a positive change for women

‘Together we can break down the barriers’

How can women in Liberia be empowered to overcome their subordinate position in society? ZOA is convinced that it is key to support women in building their confidence and skills, and promote positive perceptions towards women leaders. In this article, Marleen Spieker, Manager of Programme Quality for ZOA Liberia, explains that there is hope for a positive change – despite the challenges.

Liberia is well-known by many for its brutal civil wars from 1989 to 2003 and the deadly Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016. The negative images of Liberia’s turbulent past often overshadow other significant events.

Liberia is the oldest independent Republic in Africa. The 2005 presidential elections served as an example for the world, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was democratically elected as Liberia’s president and Africa’s first female head of state (see: Talking Peace) Sirleaf became a symbol of women empowerment worldwide, encouraging women and girls to find their voice and to step up as future leaders.

“To girls and women everywhere, I issue a simple invitation,” she said, “My sisters, my daughters, my friends; find your voice” (see: The most influential women of the last decade). However, many also belief that Sirleaf failed women in Liberia by doing near to nothing to improve their position in politics (see: Is Liberias Sirleaf really standing up for women?)

From theory to practice

Liberia has considerable policy frameworks and laws promoting gender equality and the inclusion and participation of women in all aspects of society. Concrete efforts have been undertaken to ensure more equal representation of women in decision-making by enforcing quotas and reserving seats for women and other disadvantaged groups.

However, this has not translated into actual women representation, partly due to weak enforcement. Women hold around 12 percent of parliament seats and only 6 percent of local government positions.

Girl in classroom in Liberia

Efforts on paper fail to recognize women’s complex lived realities and the challenges they face in practice. Low levels of education, limited economic opportunities, poverty, the lack of support networks and sexual and gender based violence inhibit women’s ability to compete for and participate in politics on equal footing with men. Persistent social norms and traditional beliefs restrict women to care-giving duties in the private sphere. This reinforces their subordinate position in society, whereas men are considered as leaders and decision-makers within and outside of the household.

Women in leadership positions often continue to experience discrimination and negative (violent) attitudes instigated by men as well as female competitors. Although formally part of decision-making, the voices and inputs of women leaders are not always valued and perceptions towards them remain restricted. “Leadership for women can make them rude and arrogant on their partners,” states a project participant in a paper by ZOA on ‘The interplay between power and women participation and leadership in Liberia’ (2021).

Power to women

However, there is hope for a positive change as well. Liberia has several examples of successful women leaders who are contributing to altering the status quo and aim to break down the barriers women face. Female leaders function as role models for other women and provide women with leadership opportunities by appointing them in various roles.

In some instances, attitudes towards female leaders change by praising them for their contributions to society, states the National Democratic Institute in a report on Women’s Empowerment in Liberia (2018). Just as they are praised for their positive characteristics, such as perseverance, keeping promises, ability to listen, willingness to take action and their passion.

Woman during ZOA training in Liberia

To ensure the sustainable translation of policies into practice, and thus into equal participation of women, it is key to support women in building their confidence and skills. At the same time, it’s crucial to promote positive perceptions towards women leaders.

As Sirleaf mentioned in a message on Twitter: "There will always be those who will tear us down and tear us apart because they want the status quo to remain. But together we can break down the barriers that have kept women from achieving the equity they rightfully deserve”.

Woman during ZOA training in Liberia

With the 2023 Presidential and Legislative Elections in mind, ZOA, in collaboration with the Liberia Peacebuilding Office and Angie Brooks International Centre and with funding from Irish Aid (2019 – 2022) and the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (2021 – 2022), supports women in Margibi, Grand Cape Mount, Bomi, Gbarpolu, Bong and Montserrado Counties to find their voice and take up leadership roles.

Read more about ZOA’s programme in Liberia