Violence against women, especially those competing for position in government, has characterized nearly every election in Liberia in recent years.
Electoral violence targeted candidate Cornelia Kruah-Togba in the 2018 representative byelection in Montserrado electoral District # 13. Although the Liberia National Police claims to have completed an investigation into the violence, the findings have yet to be released.
Similar violence transpired in Montserrado electoral district # 15 in 2020, when supporters of candidate Telia Urey were pursued down and injured, and her vehicle was wrecked. Candidate Edith Gongloe-Weh, who ran in the senatorial byelection for Nimba County in the same year, was subjected to similar violence. Edith would continue to challenge the election results and demand a rematch, but the Supreme Court of Liberia refused. Cornelia, Telia, and Edith did not win their elections, and no one has been held legally accountable for the violence.
Then there was the case of Gboto Kanneh in Gbarpolu County, where traditional mask dancers were used to prevent people from voting on election day, particularly in areas where Kanneh was predicted to receive more votes. This was a typical case of tradition colliding with politics.
Candidate Kanneh was elected to the Senate, but the tumultuous occurrences that tarnished her campaign, as they did Cornelia, Telia, and Edith’s, were enough to justify a collective rule that safeguards women against violence in elections.
Liberia now has that regime, thanks to UN backing. Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC) received help for the preparation of a key instrument signed between it and registered political parties to make political environments safer for women and girls as part of the Women’s Empowerment and Political Leadership (WEPL) project.
The Protocol on Violence Against Women in Liberian Elections and Politics, abbreviated as VAWiE/P, was signed by 29 of Liberia’s 33 registered political parties after a thorough consultation process. It requires political parties to ensure that women are participating in all aspects of electoral processes, including decision-making within the parties, rather than just functioning as women wings.
“UN Women is totally supporting this Protocol with Canadian monies, and we appreciate it,” says Manakabay Donzo, NEC’s senior gender officer.
“The Protocol was developed by UN Women and the NEC’s Gender Section in response to an increase in violence against women in recent elections, including violence against candidates Gboto Kanneh in Gbarpolu County, Telia Urey in Montserrado District 15, Cornelius Kruah Togbah in Montserrado District 13, and Edith Gongloe-Weh in Nimba County, among others,” she continues. The Protocol attempts to end election and political violence against women.
Any act or threat against women in politics, including women activists, women socialists, women candidates, and women public and private officers, is defined in the Protocol.
VAWIE exists at the crossroads of political and gender-based violence (GBV). It is sometimes perpetrated in extremely gendered ways and targets women who participate in public or political life because they are women.
In both its goals — to perpetuate male dominance in political leadership – and its numerous forms, which include not just physical but also sexual and psychological violence – this type of violence is extremely gendered. Many women stay away from politics because they fear for their personal safety and reputation.
Despite accounting for about half of Liberia’s population, women have long been marginalized in politics and elections.
Women will have a sense of ownership with this protocol, according to Donzo. “They will feel safe because, remember, the protocol has its own provisions that specify that if you go against the protocol from an IPCC perspective, you will face consequences.” So no political party would want to face those penalties. They’ll have to set out on a journey to ensure that they adhere to the protocol.
UN Women is recognized for providing significant financial and technical help to the creation and subsequent approval of modifications to the elections law, in addition to developing the VAWiE/P Protocol. In February 2022, the House of Representatives passed the revisions.
While the aim remained essentially for the NEC and political parties to take affirmative action in order to boost women’s representation on candidate lists, activists argue the old law’s framework lacked accountability mechanisms.
Prior to the modification, the current legislation stated that political parties must “endeavor to guarantee” that no less than 30% of each gender is represented, but there was no requirement that political parties demonstrate that they “endeavor.” There was also no way for the NEC to reject a candidate list that didn’t match the minimum requirements.
Now, a modification to Section 4.5 (1b) would replace “endeavor to ensure” and “endeavor to have” with “must ensure,” requiring political parties or coalitions to have at least 30% of each gender in their leadership, while Section 1c would require candidate lists to have at least 30% of each gender. Section 1e also provides a much-needed accountability mechanism by giving the NEC specific authority to reject a listing if it does not achieve the 30% criteria.
This is the adjustment in phrasing that supporters feel will ensure the law’s effectiveness. Thank you to the WPEL project for helping to make this reform possible.
Because patriarchy is still pervasive in Liberia, UN Women and its donors might begin to investigate ways to sustain the achievements made and open new horizons for women and girls in Liberian politics. This concerns project beneficiaries, who believe that more needs to be done to solidify the progress made over time. For example, while the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the elections law, it still needs to be approved by the Liberian Senate to become law, obliging political parties to ensure that at least thirty percent of candidates listed with the NEC are of either gender.
The NEC also depends on the Senate’s approval of the modification in order to properly exercise the authority granted to it by the legislation. The NEC cannot compel political parties to adhere to the 30% female quota in the absence of a law, rendering all original success scores null and useless.
There’s also the issue of implementing and evaluating the VAWiE/P Protocol’s effectiveness, especially as the 2023 general and presidential elections approach. All of these will take time and effort, which NEC’s gender department is concerned about.
“We rely heavily on UN Women to ensure that our efforts are implemented in time for the 2023 elections.” The NEC has a gender policy in place. We’d want to make some changes to the policy. We’d also like to make some changes to the draft disability policy. We want to make certain that this proposed policy becomes a reality.
“UN Women cannot leave Liberia because it would leave a major gap in our gender activities and, more broadly, women and girls’ assistance programs.” “They’ve always been there for us, and I’m confident they will continue to be,” Donzo says.
Josephine Kou Gaye is a Commissioner of Liberia’s National Elections Commission who oversees gender issues (NEC). Commissioner Gaye wants UN Women to facilitate the translation of the Protocol on Violence Against Women in Liberian Elections and Politics into Liberian vernaculars and braille in order to ensure electoral inclusion.
“We still need the Protocol translated into our local vernaculars from UN Women,” she says.
Remember that many of our folks are illiterate or illiterate in English. If we’re talking about inclusivity, then everyone should be able to participate. So, for our visually impaired and other challenged individuals, we want the protocol translated into vernaculars and braille. “Disabled people must and should be included in our electoral processes.”
UN Women has long supported NEC and other groups in response to demands like this.
Development agencies redirected financing to humanitarian response once COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Budget spending in Liberia was redirected to tackle the virus, affecting almost every state agency, including the National Elections Commission, where virtually all budgeted allocation for the Gender Section was eliminated.
The situation persisted for nearly two years, prompting the Commission to relegate or cancel gender-sensitive initiatives. In a system already dominated by men, this could have kept more women and girls out of politics.
UN Women was the first to intervene, and other funders soon followed.
According to Manakabay K. Donzo, NEC’s senior gender officer, UN Women first assisted NEC in developing the first workplan for the Gender Section in 2018, and from there, UN Women continued to assist NEC in various ways.
When it comes to implementing women’s and gender-related initiatives, Donzo views UN Women as NEC’s most important partner. “UN Women has acted as a backbone for us.” Frequently, we do not have funds in the budget for the gender division. UN Women has always been supportive of us. For example, the gender component of the budget was not funded during COVID-19, but UN Women was there the entire time, providing technical, financial, and material support for the implementation of gender-focused projects.
The United Nations agency implements programs, policies, and standards that protect women’s human rights and guarantee that every woman and girl achieves her full potential.
UN Women has been conducting the Women Political Empowerment and Leadership (WPEL) initiative in Liberia, with funding from the Canadian government, helping the government as well as a number of local institutions, large and small.