14 November 2011

Liberia: Sirleaf's Reelection a 'Boon for Women'

PHOTO ESSAY: Nobel Prize Ceremony

Monrovia — Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's victory for a second term of office has been described as a boon for women despite the controversy surrounding an opposition boycott of the runoff.

"It is a big boost for us as women and it keeps us ... on the world stage," said Yvette Chesson-Wureh, establishment coordinator at the Angie Brooks International Centre, a non-governmental organisation promoting women's empowerment.

"Let everyone know that we have confidence in this government and in this woman's ability to deliver."

Chesson-Wureh added that Sirleaf's win also "shows the rest of the world ... that she continues to serve as a role model to young women on the African continent."

On Friday, the National Elections Commission announced that, with 97.6 percent of the vote counted, Sirleaf had received 90.6 percent of votes in the race against her opponent, former diplomat Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC).

The runoff was not without controversy. In the days leading up to it, Tubman called for a boycott, citing alleged irregularities in the first round of voting in October. At a demonstration the day before the Nov. 8 runoff, police opened fire on CDC supporters, killing at least two in an incident that Tubman says was an assassination attempt.

At a press conference on Saturday at CDC headquarters, where the shootings took place, Tubman reiterated his party's position that it would not recognise the results of the runoff.

"It was, we believe, a political farce of the highest order, and therefore it must not be allowed to stand," he said.

Tubman said CDC lawyers would push for an annulment of the results and for a new round of balloting to be scheduled.

Sirleaf said in an address to the nation on Friday that an independent commission would be established to investigate the shootings at CDC headquarters, and expressed regret for "a tragic loss of life and injury."

"We cannot be clearer: All those found to have broken the law will be brought to justice," she said.

She also dismissed the notion that the CDC's boycott undermined the legitimacy of her win, and vowed to foster a government of inclusion.

"I will reach out to all the presidential candidates. What I will offer them is not yet known because I haven't really focused on reorganising the government," Sirleaf said.

Chesson-Wureh added that just because the CDC boycotted the election, it did not mean the process was flawed.

"If you decide to boycott an election, it does not mean that the process is illegitimate, especially when the other person participates," Chesson-Wureh said. "It is your constitutional right to vote, and so if you decide to waive that right, that's fine. To use the word illegitimate is completely out of context."

Chesson-Wureh said Sirleaf should push forward with initiatives that began during her first term of office.

Chesson-Wureh cited the increased number of women in positions of power in government - 30 percent of members of parliament are women - as one of Sirleaf's achievements. She also lauded efforts to combat Liberia's high rate of gender-based violence, including the establishment in 2008 of special courts for sexual violence cases.

"This shows that it is a no-nonsense approach, telling the world that sexual violence is a serious crime," she said.

Sirleaf has said that half the country's women are victims of gender-based violence as a result of the country's 14-year civil war.

But Grace Zoe Davis, a 43-year-old woman who sells construction materials in Monrovia, said the empowerment of women in this West African nation has been limited to those in the upper class.

"I see no difference in what she has done for the lives of women in the last six years. (Sireleaf) has only (helped) people in her class and not the ordinary woman in Liberia," Davis said.

"For 16 years I have been doing business, and I am still doing business. There are so many opportunities they claimed to have (created) for people, but ... those in the upper class are the ones that enjoy those opportunities."

Davis nonetheless credited Sirleaf, who was named a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October shortly before the election, for Liberia's recent stability. She encouraged Sirleaf to promote more young, qualified Liberians to government positions.

"She needs to open up the system because there are lots of Liberian youth that are qualified, yet still she goes to the United States and brings in her friends to work in her government," Davis said.

Patience Heah, a 34-year-old Labour Ministry employee and member of Sirleaf's Unity Party, said the president incumbent has done much to promote women's empowerment, and that her very presence as a head of state was symbolically important. Sirleaf become Africa's first female head of state when she was elected as president in 2006.

"It gives women the courage to push forward and not to be at the back looking at the men," Heah said. "No more will women sit and allow their male counterparts to rule over them. Things are now being done on a 50-50 basis."

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