Liberia’s Johnson-Sirleaf leaves mixed legacy for women as she steps down

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first female president when she was elected in 2005. She came to power vowing to empower women in Liberia, whose efforts had helped end the civil war. Her rise has made her a great role model for women across the country. But as her mandate draws to a close, how much has actually changed for women in Liberia?

MONROVIA, LIBERIA (REUTERS) – When Liberia became the first African country to elect a female head of state in 2005, many hoped that the win by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, would herald a win for women across the West African nation.

Liberian girls are still among the least educated in the world today.

Only 17 percent of them reach secondary school, compared to just under 40 percent of boys according to figures by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Lack of school fees in the struggling economy and traditional attitudes towards gender are mostly to blame – many parents still prioritize their sons’ education over those of their daughters.

Sixteen-year-old Bendu is a student at Christian Mennonite School.

“My father is paying my school fees. He has paid the first semester but he says he doesn’t really have the money to pay for the final school fee, so he’s looking for money,” she said.

Johnson-Sirleaf made tackling the education crisis one of her top priorities in office. Last year her administration started outsourcing government schools to private partners.

A recent survey by the Centre for Global Development and Innovations for Poverty Action found pupils at these schools made seven months more progress in English and maths compared with children at public schools.

‘More than Me Academy’ for girls is one of the private partnership institutions in Monrovia. It is tuition free, funded by private sponsors and donors.

For the girls here, just having a woman as president has inspired them.

“People are seeing girls as leaders, they are looking at her saying ‘Oh, if that woman can be a president then i can be a president’. We are looking at the woman, at the president and seeing what she is doing and what we can do, because she has made this nation proof to all nations and all men that women can be better,” said student, Give Fallah.

Johnson-Sirleaf, 78, has many accomplishments to boast during her term in office.

The economy is four times the size it was when she took office in 2005. The gangs of drug addled youths who raped and mutilated their way across the nation during a civil war that ended in 2003 are a vivid but receding memory among other things.

Johnson-Sirleaf inspired women in the workplace too. Liberia’s market women helped get her elected. In 2006, Sirleaf set up a nationwide market women’s fund to support them.

The fund offers training and microcredit to women to expand their businesses.

Korpo Willigie says she now travels across West Africa to trade her traditional wraps.

“Women are strong now. Most women are very strong – before women couldn’t do anything. But now women take the lead… most of the time, even in the home, women take the lead,” she said.

But not everyone is convinced by Sirleaf’s efforts for women and girls.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and women’s activist Leymah Gbowee, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf, says the outgoing president hasn’t done enough to advance women’s rights.

“Maybe the problem we have as women, is that our expectations were very high, and that’s why we feel the disappointment probably more than the other segment of the population. Education, health and justice issues for women – those are the three things I would personally say we haven’t gotten down,” she said.

Liberia also has continuing high rates of rape and sexual abuse, and there is the lack of progress in tackling it.

A 2006 Rape Law is rarely enforced. In 2012, the special criminal court for gender-based violence cases dismissed 93 percent of cases.

Meanwhile a domestic violence bill, submitted in 2015, has been considerably watered down by the legislature – and Sirleaf has still not signed it into law.

“There is no interest… because for many people they see the Domestic Violence Bill as a bill that supports primarily women, so it’s just political will,” Gbowee says.

Julia Duncan-Cassell, the country’s minister for gender, children and social protection, says the president’s efforts were thwarted by the disproportionate ratio of men to women in the legislature.

“We thought that that bill would have had an easy passage. But instead it lingered in the legislature. With almost 4-5 months to elections, everybody said ‘if we pass this bill, nobody will vote for us,” she said.

As the first female president in Africa, Sirleaf was a trailblazer for women. Activists say that the inspiration and change of mindset she has created will outlive her time in office.

She has built the framework, but much remains to be done, particularly in the way of education and justice for Liberian women.