By Vickjune Excel Wutoh, BSc. Economics – Activist
In Liberia, women are vividly seen marginalized in all spheres of political and public life by their male counterparts. But this article will mainly focus on three public career areas, namely education, religion, and politics. Helen Cooper in an article published in the New York Times, argued that though the record of electing Africa’s first female president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is today an inspiration to this generation; however, it is also evident that women are still marginalized today in many institutions to include churches, mosques, schools, and government.
Religion is often seen as a barrier to achieving gender parity. For years, women have struggled to gain equality in all areas of life—from the home to the workplace, and especially in positions of leadership. Without any doubt, historically women were marginalized not only in society but also within the church and mosques.
Education – Women in Liberia are mostly underprivileged when it comes to access to equal educational opportunities. Less women instructors, faculties and administrators in high schools and universities are some main contributing factors. On average, most learning environments lack safe spaces for women (restrooms, sanitary pads, informative health sessions on the dos and don’ts especially on menstrual hygiene, etc.).
Religion – Christianity and Islam are the two dominant religions in Liberia. Of the two, Christianity has a little visibility of women but not in prominent positions on the average. Most churches are presided over by male preachers. On the other hand, in Islam, women are seemingly prohibited from being Imams – leading prayers in the mosques. The article “Women in Islam” from the Pluralism Project of Harvard University asserts that women are not marginalized in Islam as it is portrayed, in fact the article further explains that Islamic women are found in various professional sectors, health, education and politics which is somehow true in Liberia but not to a larger extent. Also true is, they do not play equal role that is given to their male counterparts in the mosques.
In comparison, Some Christian women also are active in various professional sectors. In contrast, no woman becomes an Iman in a mosque in Liberia which concretely validates my opinion that women in general are marginalized in Islam as also in Christianity.
Philosophers and religious scholars have argued that women suppression and marginalization in social, religious, political and economic systems far dates to biblical days – where women were taught to be in total submission to their husbands or male counterparts.
In Liberia which is also true in many societies, for example, religious and traditional beliefs and cultural attitudes regarding the role and status of women in society are still prevalent and many women part of this system are finding it difficult to dislocate from this culture, religion and tradition but lest they be ostracized when they do.
Despite women’s education and entry into the job market, the woman’s role is typically one of homemaker. The man, on the other hand, is breadwinner, head of household and has a right to public life. Confining women’s identity to the domestic sphere is one of the barriers to women’s entry into public life.
Politics – Politics in Liberia is seen as a no-go-zone for women. The Liberian constitution gives women the right to vote in 1946, a very late start to our political journey. Fear, intimidation, lack of finances, stereotypes are barriers that prevent women from vying and winning elections; the feeling of entitlement by men in politics amongst others are leading factors for the less representation of women in elected and appointed positions in government.
Generally, cultural attitudes are hostile to women’s involvement in politics. Some women were able to transcend cultural barriers and rise to positions of leadership (whether in politics or elsewhere), but more often than not, it meant having to juggle cultural expectations with their leadership roles. Few of those are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who broke the glass ceiling and shackles and made her way to the highest position in the Liberian state, the presidency in both 2005 and 2011 elections. Her legacy today still breeds hope and challenges more women to aspire for higher height in political system in Liberia and around the globe.
Conclusion – Unless failed, and Gender-blind policies are conscientiously and consciously revisited and reviewed by Government of Liberia, Civil Society Actors, Religious Leaders, Traditional Leaders, Youth and Students Groups, and International Partners, Liberian women will continue to have a huge gap of professional representation in public life, specifically education, politics, and religion.
There is also a growing consensus among international actors that gender equality is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do. There is some evidence suggesting that a higher number of women in elected office lead to greater economic advantages. The World Bank, for example, argues that promoting gender equality is “smart economics” because it can increase output per worker by 3 per cent to 25 per cent across a range of countries.