Notes from UOttawa Event: “Making a difference? Assessing the legacy of Africa’s first elected woman President”

This past Wednesday November 15, 2017. I attended an event at UOttawa co-hosted by the Center for International Policy Studies (CIPS) and the Africa Policy Study Group entitled: Making a difference? Assessing the legacy of Africa’s first elected woman President. It centered around Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose second mandate is now up for election. Many have been critical of Sirleaf’s lack of action to help Liberian women, one of the co-presenters calling her a “femocrat”. Sirleaf herself denounces feminism, associating it with extremism.

The event featured firsthand accounts from Dr. Robtel Neajai Pailey, who worked with Sirleaf during her first term as President. Pailey is critical of Sirleaf but also highlights some of the positive impacts she had on the country. These include: acquiring debt relief of $4 Billion in a post-civil war environment; successfully negotiating concessional agreements on for example, labour laws; rehabilitating infrastructure; an unprecedented devolution of fiscal authority to counties; and a look South policy for investment. Sirleaf made some advancements for women which include; political reforms bringing women in to cabinet positions; increasing the visibility of market women by renovating markets and providing banking services; and through socio-legal policies including a gender policy, the equal access to land, free girls education, a Ministry of Gender and Women, and a criminal court for Gender Based Violence. Overall, Pailey claims Sirleaf completely transformed the function and form of the face of political power.

Pailey’s list of Sirleaf’s failures is however much longer. She starts with Sirleaf’s mismanagement of the economy, noting the rampant corruption, nepotism, and budget shortfalls which directly lead to poor education outcomes around the country and a poorly functioning health system allowing the Ebola outbreak to spread. Liberia has money but under the leadership of Sirleaf, has become one of the most unequal countries in the world, especially with regards to disparities between salaries of government officials. Following the civil-war, a Truth and Reconciliation recommendations were made however, Sirleaf largely ignored them, allowing perpetrators to walk free. Pailey further criticizes Sirleaf for returning to the 1970s-era of natural resource extraction which is without any value addition and therefore revenues.

While Sirleaf’s establishment of polices for women is impressive on paper, in reality these have led to little improvements in the lives of Liberian women. For example: the criminal court for Gender Based Violence is located in the capital city and therefore is only accessible to a small portion of the population; there are no forensic experts in the country to assess rape cases; the Senate has called to make rape a bailable crime; and there is low representation of women in office, which Pailey says is a result of as Sirleaf not supporting a 2010 bill for gender equity in politics which would have funded women-led political campaigns. There are now less women in elected office as compared to when Sirleaf took office. In the current Presidential election, there was one female candidate and she received only 0.8% of votes. In her first term, Sirleaf supported experienced women with international credentials and placed them in key positions such as heads of Ministries. In her second term, these women have been replaced with underqualified men (re:nepotism). In doing so, Sirleaf has served the interests of a very few, high level group of men.

It is for this reason that Pailey refers to Sirleaf as a “femocrat” -  someone who tries to keep the glass ceiling intact, whereas a feminist tries to shatter the glass ceiling. Liberian women and men feel that Sirleaf has failed them and thus do not foresee themselves supporting another woman as a Presidential candidate anytime soon.

The second speaker, Professor Jane Parpart, was also critical of Sirleaf, focusing on the importance of gender relations  in politics. Parpart mentions that Sirleaf was unable to change rape rates in the post-civil war context in Liberia -  she says that we must start to evaluate how gender relations shift in conflict to understand how women and men will later be impacted and how a democratic society can be re-established.

Parpart spoke about how this relates to the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), focusing on understanding the fluidity of the term “gender”.. She says that women can be in power without disturbing the male-dominated political realm, referencing Merkel and Thatcher who have been taken seriously and gained acceptance by adopting masculine traits and reducing their female identity. This leads to Parpart’s main conclusion that it is not enough to count female bodies in parliament, as these women are often sidelined and have difficulty making real impacts to policy reform -  they are put into “feminine” roles. The political culture is such that it is designed for people without responsibility or expectations (i.e. no family to care for) and when women are included, they are chastised for focusing on their career rather than their societal expectations. For the FIAP, we must therefore ask: What are the conditions that operate in the political sphere making it difficult for women to come into and stay in this sphere? Rather than: Where are the women, and how many of them are there? Adding female participation in politics should only be the first step, we must try to understand how power operates in the political sphere. Parpart says the FIAP can be successful if it considers a gendered analysis looking at the relations between men and women in politics.

Suggested feminist tool: identifying existing feminist practices/systems in place and enhancing them is more effective to implement change as people will get behind these more than imported, Western, feminist systems.

Sirleaf is democratically leaving, which the speakers applaud as many African leaders (men) refuse to leave their posts -  if anything, this can be considered part of her legacy as a woman President.


I hope these notes provide a glimpse into this really interesting event. If anyone has any questions about it, I’m happy to discuss.


Take care,


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