A 22-member Women's Interest Group on November 22 presented a communiqué calling on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to take certain actions to empower Liberian women.
The group called upon President Sirleaf to enable women to take the lead and drive the nation's peace and reconciliation process; and to increase the number of women in leadership positions by 50 percent at all levels of governance, in accordance with her Executive powers, the African Union Protocol on the rights of women in Africa, and the Millennium Development Goals.
An Executive Mansion release said the group proposed that the empowerment of women should include young females through investment in their businesses, advanced education in marketable non-traditional skills, opportunities for professional career exposure, as well as nurturing potential females for national service.
The Women Group further requested the president to support the enhancement of a vibrant feminist platform in order to strengthen women's solidarity, and raise collective voices around common interests and issues of governance, sustainable peace, national reconciliation, stability of the state and women's empowerment.
As the meeting got under way, the Minister of Gender and Development, Madam Julia Duncan Cassell, reminded the President that upon her return from a visit to Japan in October, women from the group had greeted her at the airport and, in a statement presented to her, had requested an audience.
The group's spokesperson, Mrs. Una Kumba Thompson, said the women of Liberia appreciated the work done by President Sirleaf, and the great strides being made to take the country forward. They were aware of the challenges the country faced, but knew from whence it had come in just a few years. The women wanted to be a part of that development and progress. She called upon the President to utilize the women, to direct them and to count on them to do their very best.
Several members of the group then elaborated on exactly what the women want to see happen in the areas of peace, security and reconciliation; governance and leadership; empowerment and women's solidarity. Specific areas discussed included the establishment of a permanent space where women could craft ideas, discuss and analyze key issues, and strategize; the need for the President's support of the Gender Equity Bill in the National Legislature when it is re-introduced; and empowerment for women in governance, agriculture, microfinance, and in the security sector.
Responding, President Sirleaf thanked the women for articulating some of their concerns, their anticipations and desires. Clearly, she said, nobody would stop women from participating in their areas of expertise and drive.
Concerning the request to increase the number of women in leadership positions by 50 percent at all levels of governance, the President replied that there was no way she could do so, because many areas required specialization. She would continue to try to increase the number of women, but would not tie herself to that percentage. The President urged those women looking for placement to get their CVs to her, to determine the best fit.
As regards 50 percent representation in the Legislature, the President said she had told the women that the Equity Bill had to be rewritten. Minister Duncan Cassell assured her that this would be done; that a team had just returned from Senegal, on a learning mission, and would report on what the Senegalese did in successfully passing their Equity Bill.
To some of the specific proposals, President Sirleaf promised to think through the request for a permanent space for women, and suggested that it be called the "Women's Peace Room." Concerning security, she said that government's goals remains a minimum of 25 percent women in the security services, but that had not yet been achieved. The Gender Minister explained that, with additional funding made available under the Security Council Resolution 1325 program, more women would be recruited into the Police and Immigration.
On financial support for women in politics, the President urged them to be more organized in raising national funding; to determine which candidate they would support, and then raise the money to support that person. "Come up with your strategy," she told the women, "and we will work with you."
Regarding financing for business, the President pointed out that the Central Bank of Liberia has made money available, through LBDI, to finance businesses, and preference would be given to serious business women. She would call upon the Central Bank to support a business development service to assist women in preparing their business plans, and also to explain to them what they need to do to qualify for loans. She requested a listing of women in business, with information about their location, as she could drop in on occasion to promote their efforts. She added that government ministries and agencies would be encouraged to buy from Liberian business women.
President Sirleaf encouraged the women to volunteer their services for the Liberia Education Trust (LET-M) Saturday reading program for young girls, in any of the schools involved. It was important, she said, for the children to be exposed to people who could reshape their characters.
Concluding, Madam Sirleaf called the meeting encouraging, and promised to work with the women in the areas that had been identified.
Among the women who spoke at the meeting were: Grace Yeanay, who read out the Communiqué; Ivy K. Harris, of Women in Politics; Estella Nelson, who runs a non-profit radio station; Elizabeth Bannerman, of the Liberia Chamber of Commerce; Melinda B. Just, Executive Director for Women and Children Development Association of Liberia; Maria Nimely, of the Women's Network for the Promotion of Gender in Transport; Elizabeth Wilson, Matron at Bromley Mission; and the President of the Liberian Rural Women's Association, who gave the vote of thanks.