Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Feminist icon or femocrat? | Liberia

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As President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf leaves office, it is tempting to speak of her as an “international feminist icon”. Her power play is an ode to matrilineal politics which dominated the continent before the advent of colonialism. Alongside the Queen Mother in the Kingdom of Baganda and the members of women’s assemblies in the Yoruba tribe, Sirleaf stands in a long line of strong African women who led their communities and nations.

Rising to power following Liberia’s devastating civil war in 2005 and winning a second term in 2011, Sirleaf has symbolically set a precedent for women in the country in a way few have done before her.

Yet in the world of politics, both on local and international stages, symbolism does not always translate into practice and policies. The example of the number of female candidates in the October 10 Liberian elections is a case in point. Although Sirleaf appointed several women to high positions in finance and commerce in her first term, we do have to question how far-reaching Sirleaf’s efforts were, when only one woman – Macdella Cooper – out of 20 candidates ran for the top job.

While Sirleaf came out in full support of Cooper and all other women candidates who ran for parliamentary seats, her party ranked below peripheral parties in putting forward female candidates.


Of course, there shouldn’t be the expectation that Sirleaf’s two terms would have solved all women’s problems in Liberia, but it is important to question whether she made a concerted effort to change the status quo. Or were her politics just another example of “femocracy”, a term which Nigerian Academic Amina Baba has defined as “an anti-democratic female power structure which claims to exist for the advancement of ordinary women … advancing the interests of small female elite … upholding the patriarchal status quo”.  

While Sirleaf came out in full support of Cooper and all other women candidates who ran for parliamentary seats, her party ranked below peripheral parties in putting forward female candidates. And this is in spite of legal amendments in 2014, which were supposed to propose greater representation of women in roles across the political spectrum – a law that Sirleaf herself did not ratify.

Her successor will almost certainly be a man, and parliament will be heavily men-dominated. Women are making up only 16 percent of approved candidates for parliamentary seats compared with 14 percent in Liberia’s 2011 elections. Statistically, it is hardly a jump across the river. If these numbers are anything to go by, the next president will have to work tirelessly to ensure Liberia can have a second woman president in the future.

And lack of representation in politics is only one of the many problems women face in Liberia.

Early pregnancies and instances of gender-based violence are still common in Liberia. So while women’s empowerment in the political sphere was and still is important, there were even more important issues that needed to be addressed during Sirleaf’s time in office to guarantee long-term gender equality in Liberia. Sirleaf’s administration did acknowledge these challenges and worked towards overcoming them, but once again these issues proved to be too complex and profound for a single administration to tackle fully

Education is perhaps one area of policy in which Sirleaf made some significant progress towards ensuring equality for girls and women. Sirleaf, who has a degree from Harvard University, supported several schemes to ensure Liberian girls get an education, even when the country was battling a devastating Ebola epidemic. But Liberia still ranked 114 out of 144 countries in World Economic Forum’s 2016 gender equality report (pdf), so there is a long way to go.

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