In October 2018, Liberian leader George Weah declared himself “Liberia’s Feminist-in-Chief.”
By that declaration, the Executive Mansion said, the President reaffirms his unwavering commitment to pursuing the feminist ideals that guarantee the rights and wellbeing of women.
Five years on as President, it is imperative to thoroughly assess Weah’s record in promoting the interests and security of women, especially when issues of violence and rape against women and girls are said to be on the increase in the country.
DUBAWA, in this Explainer, will look beyond the President’s self-proclaimed mantra as “Liberia’s Feminist-in-chief” and ascertain if this proclamation has any true meaning within the context of Liberia women’s development.
To be feminist-in-chief, one must be committed to equal representation at all levels by reflecting the rights and needs of everyone, particularly women and girls. In a Twitter post in 2021, UN Secretary Antonio Guituress said, “only with women’s equal participation across all spheres will we benefit from the intelligence & experience of all of humanity.”
But the story in Liberia is contrary to the expectation of the UN Secretary-General. In Liberia’s midterm Senatorial elections in 2020, President Weah’s three-party government put up candidates without picking a single female for that election, thereby leading to widespread criticisms from women’s rights activists. In Weah’s cabinet, out of nineteen top ministers, there are only five women represented in total.
Violence against Women in Liberia
As if the discrimination in political appointments is not injurious enough, male violence against women and girls in Liberia has aggressively increased under the watchful eyes of President Weah. For many women and girls in Liberia, the violence they experienced during the 14 years of back-to-back civil crises still occurs.
Among other things, rape, early marriage, silence on violence against women and girls, low women representation in the legislature and many others stand as fundamental problems yet to be addressed. Rape is a sexual activity carried out without consent or with a minor. According to Merriam’s Dictionary, it includes unlawful sexual activity. Usually, intercourse is carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against a person’s will or with someone beneath a certain age.
Liberia is replete with examples of allegations of rape against high-ranking members of government. For instance, in 2020, Mr Weah appointed Foreign Minister D. Maxwell Kemayah amid allegations of sexual harassment from a female staff in Washington DC on Liberia’s permanent UN mission.
Though the office of the President acknowledged receipt of a complaint from the sexual harassment survivor against his current Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Liberian “feminist-in-chief” ignored the lady’s concern and commissioned Kemayah as Minister proper without the outcome of any investigation.
Like Kemayah, one of the Commissioners at the Independent Human Rights Commission in Liberia, Mohammed Fahnbulleh, was most recently accused of by a female employee in the institution of sexual harassment. An investigation conducted by various civil society actors in Liberia found the accused Commissioner liable for the act. But Fahnbulleh, who denies any wrongdoing, has taken the matter to court as he enjoys the confidence of his boss, President Weah, the self-proclaimed “feminist-in-chief.”
OHCHR was established in April 2018, following the signing of a six-year host country agreement with the government of Liberia. The agreement allows the institution to exercise full human rights promotion and protection. According to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection in Liberia, rape accounted for more than 60% of total Sexual Gender Based Violence cases.
The figure on rape from the Gender Ministry was also captured in the 2018 US State Department Report, which was released in 2019. Among other things, the report highlighted that: “Rape is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem.”
In addition, a year before Mr Weah’s elections, the UN report in 2016 indicates: “A very high number of rapes reported in all the 15 counties across the country, with 803 cases in 2015. Rape is the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia,” according to the report.
The report adds that impunity also prevails for recent rapes, with only two per cent of rapes and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) cases reported last year resulting in a conviction in court.
This report was a pitch not only to the feminist President-elect, Weah, but also one that needed the attention of well-meaning citizens relative to the overriding need to increase accountability for rape in the country. But nothing much has changed during the tenure of President Weah.
Early Marriage is the early state of being united as spouses, mostly against the interest of women and girls yet recognised by law. Gender-Based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on gender.
Murder and Weah’s silence
The evidence of Liberia’s gender-based violence is incontrovertible. However, the most recent test of President Weah’s credential as feminist-in-chief comes from the violent attacks on Liberia’s former Chief Justice, Gloria Musu Scott, the murder of her daughter and injuries to her family. Weeks after the incident, neither the President nor his office issued a public statement condemning the murder. Not even an announcement of an investigation that will lead to a logical conclusion of the case.
His silence has been described as worrisome by the Association of Female Lawyers Association. In a statement, they indicated, “We need you, Mr President, to make strong public condemnations of insecurity issues and take action on violence against women and children.”
But the women in Liberia have not been as silent as the president. Right from 2020, the women of Liberia staged sporadic protests across the country against all forms of violence, particularly the surge of rape cases in the country. Dressed in dominant black outfits, the women also expressed frustration over Weah’s administration’s growing silence on violence against them.
“They marched through the streets of Monrovia to petition the Legislature. The protest, named and styled ‘March for Justice,’ caught the government’s attention, pushing them to declare the menace (Rape) a national emergency. Despite declaring rape a national emergency, nothing much has changed.
Women and Elections
At the seat of government, there is power. This power translates into decisions. Suppose there is any place women must occupy to assert themselves and participate in the decision-making process towards the development of Liberia. In that case, it must be in government through elections or appointments.
However, Mr Weah most recently rejected several portions of the new elections law, which among other things, calls for 30% gender representation mainly for women eyeing national leadership through elective political seats in the country. The law also sought to fine and delist political parties that failed to adhere to the 30% gender representation. Sadly, the “Feminist-in-Chief” Weah argued that passing the law would violate the ECOWAS Protocol A/SP1/12/01 on Democracy and Good Governance.
As mentioned by Mr Weah, this protocol clearly states in article 2 that “no substantial modification shall be made to the electoral laws in the last six months before the elections except with the consent of a majority of political actors.”
But, when he (President Weah) ‘Vetoed’ the law, Liberia was just seven months ahead of the October 10, 2023, Presidential and Legislative elections and not six months. Unlike Liberia, the West African nation of Sierra Leone, headed by President Julius Mada Bio in February of this year, passed a gender equality bill reserving 30% seats for women in elected and appointed public offices.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Most recently, the Weah-led administration, partners, and traditional leaders agreed to end an old-aged harmful traditional practice in the country. The step to ban female genital mutilation has widely been described as great progress.
The US government, through its embassy in Monrovia, most recently lauded the move on the part of the government while urging the Legislature to pass the agreement into law.
“I was not here for International Women’s Day, but I still wanted to congratulate the Weah Administration, the traditional leaders, the religious leaders, the women’s support groups, UN Women, and UNDP for going far beyond lip service to taking coordinated action to preserve the Sande while fighting the scourge of FGM,” US Ambassador McCarthy said at a news briefing in Monrovia
What are Liberians saying?
When Liberians first overheard the President’s declaration as feminist-in-chief, they were assured that their rights would be protected and they would have equal space in national decision-making. Still, sadly, many are concerned about the deafening silence from President George Weah.
Lisa Tenneh Diasy is a prominent Liberian woman and CEO of Women online TV in Liberia. She said: “The attacks against women must stop. The attacks are huge, happening daily, and this has to stop. Our Country must practice and uphold the tenets of democracy and the respect for human rights.”
According to her, WOMEN’s rights are human rights, adding, “no matter what professional area a woman occupies, she must not be harassed, intimidated and marginalised. The silence of the current head of state of Liberia towards the current wave of attacks against women says a lot,” Daisy said.
The researcher produced this Explainer per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship programme to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.