the Roadblocks: A Response to the Defeat of
the Gender Equity bill
Jackie Nina Sayegh
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.
after study has shown that there is no effective
development strategy in which women do not play
a central role," former UN Secretary-General
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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