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Removing the Roadblocks: A Response to the Defeat of the Gender Equity bill

By Jackie Nina Sayegh

The Gender Equity Bill in Liberia that had sought to allocate 30% of women's representation in the government was defeated in the House. Please allow this piece as my response.

"Study after study has shown that there is no effective development strategy in which women do not play a central role," former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. This global bill of rights for women defines discrimination against women as "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."Countries that have ratified or signed the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. Liberia is one such country.

Gender discrimination is insidious and pervasive. Women and girls do not have equal access to the same opportunities in any region of the world. This is a given. The Liberian Bill was intended to address the entrenched inequalities that exist in the Liberian society. Senator Isaac Nyenabo of Grand Gedeh County assertion that because Liberian now boasts a female head of state is irrelevant as this does not mean that the gender equation is now equal. What Senator Nyenabo and the others who voted to defeat the bill fail to grasp is that the inherent inequities of the system in Liberia, together with the war, has merged to create a downward vortex for women.

Women's participation and access to equal opportunities is a question of basic equality and fundamental rights. If we lived in a perfect world and all things were equal, quotas would not be necessary. However, this is not a perfect world and quotas are needed to ensure equal representation of women in all sectors of society. A person does not have to be against men to be for women. They simply must desire equal opportunity for everyone, irrespective of gender.

There are some people who claim that to have quotas in some way show that women are weaker and therefore need more help. The old argument is that if women are qualified they should be able to compete with men on an equal basis. Many women in Liberia are unable to participate equally or otherwise in the social, political, and economic processes because of illiteracy, poverty, and lack of adequate resources.

Quotas for women do not discriminate (as the Senator alleges), but compensate for actual barriers that have hindered women from full participation. For basic equality, women have the right as citizens to equal representation. The basic word here is REPRESENTATION. Women must be represented in decision-making bodies in the country.

There is an argument that the quota is put there for women because they are weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anyone seeing the bravery shown by Liberian women during the civil war knows how strong the Liberian women were and are. It took strength to stand up when a person is not armed, strength to sit under the hot noon day sun and pray for peace, and it definitely took strength to stand up to a dictator and speak truth to power. This the women did and more. No, women are strong beyond measure and Liberian women more so. The 30% is to remove the stumbling blocks placed in their way on their path to representation. Our young girls must see reflected in the array of politicians those of their own gender, women they can look up to and in positions that they too can occupy someday.

The argument put up by some Liberian Senators that giving 30% representation to women would somehow disenfranchised men is a worn and tired one. If the math is correct, that still leaves 70% of seats in the political arena for men. "If we passed such a law today, tomorrow the Muslims, the physically challenged and the men will run to this Legislature for the passage of a law to suit their own interest," Senator Able Massalay of Grand Cape Mount County cautioned. That is an irrational slippery slope argument. The issue of religion and the disabled cuts across gender lines. A Muslim, or a person of any other religion, or a handicap person may be man or woman. Therefore their gender is not the issue here. Women, on the other hand, are marginalized through their gender.

And why would Senator Massalay make such a statement? Are Muslims and the disabled not part of the Liberian social fabric? Are they not to have representation or is this solely reserved for able-bodied Christian Liberian males?
Senator Nyenabo goes on to quote Article 18 that states that "All Liberian citizens shall have equal opportunity for work and employment regardless of sex, creed, religion, ethnic background, place of origin or political affiliation, and all shall be entitled to equal pay for equal work." He claims that the Gender Bill is in direct conflict with this. I do not believe so.
Article 18 of our constitution does not conflict with the proposed Gender Bill. To put it simply, if everyone is to have equal opportunity to the right to employment as stated in Article 18, why then would someone who has no education not get a job in a school or ministry? The constitution states that every person shall have "equal opportunity" but there are inherent roadblocks to a person obtaining that "equal opportunity" Since a person's ability to get gainful employment is hindered by lack of opportunity to obtain an education, that roadblock must be removed. Such is the logic of the proposed Gender bill.

Remove the roadblocks and let the objectives be achieved. The quotas do not have to be permanent. They can be temporary measures with timetable of 15-25 years by which full equality, or at least most of the road blocks, are removed and the playing field is somehow leveled. As Sarah Moore Grimke puts it so eloquently "I ask no favors for my sex.... All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks. "

Problems arise when in order to go around the allocation, unqualified or unprepared women are given seats just because of the allocation. This in itself is discriminatory. That is why the bill is needed to help more women become qualified participants in the development of our country.

To be fair, Liberia is hardly the only country where opposition to the push for gender equity is taking place. Opposition to having a quota for women is not new. In many countries around the world, groups have opposed allocation of certain percent for women. In India, the opposition to the quota bill for women waged on for 14 years but was finally passed by India's parliament. In other countries, the battle continues against the quota passage.
But there are successes as well. Rwanda leads the world with 48.8% of women representation, this after coming back from a horrific genocide. In Angola women compose 39% of the National Assembly. In Cameroon, of the 180 seats in the National Assembly, 25 are women. The South Africa National Assembly boasts 178 seats held by women out of a total of 400.

True, Liberia is not Angola, nor Rwanda, but Liberia is part of the global community. Liberia has ratified international conventions that have as its stated objectives elimination of institutional barriers that hinder the full participation of women in the affairs of a county. Liberian women voices need to be heard as they are the ones disproportionately affected most by unfair or discriminatory policies. Women are the ones whose lives and the lives of their children are destroyed as a consequence of the laws made mainly by men in power. Of course many people fear change. Change is never easy. But change we must if we are to stand with other nations and take our rightful place in the global arena. And change we must if our women (half of our country) is to fully participate in the development process and be represented not only in the political halls of power, but in every crevice, segment, and sector of our country.


Jackie Nina Sayegh is the Manager of the Institute for African Development, Cornell University. She is an alum of the University of Liberia and Cornell University. The views expressed here are solely her own. Ms. Sayegh can be reached at