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Liberia: Empower Women, Transform a Nation

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Liberian women are peacemakers, known the world over for their role in ending the country's brutal civil conflict, which ended in 2003 and left the country in tatters. Nobel Laureates Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee have become the international face of Liberian women. But their fame, and the fact that Liberia is home to Africa's first democratically-elected woman President, should not obscure the fact that there are many constraints to women's full and equal participation in political and economic life.

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Liberian women mark ten years of peace | UNMIL Photo

Life for Liberians has improved in the past decade. But while the poverty rate has dropped from 64 per cent in 2007 to 56 per cent in 2010, the country still ranks close to bottom of global league tables, coming 174th out of 187 countries in the UN's 2013 Human Development Index. Although on the decline, Liberia's maternal mortality rate remains among the highest in the world, and with limited reproductive health services, approximately four women die each day in Liberia from pregnancy-related complications. Girls' formal schooling--which helps empower them for active roles in public life -- is often disrupted by traditional initiation practices and child marriage, which remain deeply entrenched in parts of Liberian society.

Under the leadership of the President, executive appointments have enabled women to make up one-third of County Superintendent posts and two-thirds of the mayorships of county capitals. Thirty per cent of cabinet level posts are held by women. With women currently occupying some of the country's most visible posts of influence, it would be easy to assume that women dominate political life. Some women are being told, in effect, to enjoy this while it lasts: these are gains that may be reversed upon Liberia's next presidential elections, to be held in 2017.

Women seeking elected office, or traditional leadership roles, are on shakier ground: just over two percent of Liberia's paramount chiefs are women, and thirteen women sit in Liberia's 103-member Legislature, where sentiment on initiatives to strengthen women's political participation can be lukewarm. Women do not feel empowered to stand for office, and have lacked the institutional support to do so. But efforts to level the playing field are gaining ground. In recent days, the Senate approved an amendment to the election law which encourages political parties to promote a non-binding 30 per cent target for women in governing structures and candidate lists. While this is a step forward in the public debate about women's political participation, it falls far short of a guarantee.

Some four-fifths of the population, or 78 per cent, are engaged in "vulnerable employment", meaning they may not have decent working conditions, social security, a steady stream of income, or an organized, representative voice. Women comprise over half of Liberia's adult labour force, and are far more likely than men to be vulnerably employed in the informal sector and agriculture. This is especially true in rural areas. Men greatly outnumber women in all other sectors of Liberia's economy including forestry, mining and manufacturing.

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Women farming in Liberia | UNMIL Photo

There have been efforts to empower women economically. In 2010, women trading agricultural and other goods along Liberia's borders with Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Guinea formed the Association of Women in Cross Border Trade, through which they established self-managed financial institutions, utilizing their own savings to invest in each other's businesses through low-interest loans. The Association has grown since its founding, and now has 4,000 members, with some women expanding their trading activities well beyond the region, to Asia and elsewhere. The Association has given women the courage and confidence to enhance their own lives, and the links they establish with their sister traders across border have made important contributions to Liberia's security, and to the region's.

This type of women's entrepreneurship has translated into more local jobs, better housing, and money for children's school fees. Masa Sanoh, a cross-border trader from Grand Cape Mount County, began construction of her family's first home with the profits earned from her first loan; she has now earned enough to send her daughter to high school. Liberia needs this type of economic activity on a larger scale. By promoting women's equal access to productive inputs, to formal education, and to financial services, the gates will open for more equitable development of Liberia's economy. Liberia's transition to a middle-income economy by 2030, the goal set by this Government, will depend on empowering women and girls socially, politically and economically, and encouraging their participation as equal partners to turn Liberia into an inclusive and productive economic force.

In her annual address to the nation this year, President Johnson Sirleaf appealed to Liberians to gather the courage needed to depart from the country's history of exclusion, and to overcome longstanding social cleavages that remain a latent risk to peace and democratic governance in Liberia. "We know that we have some distance to travel to overcome the challenges bequeathed to us by the long years of conflict, division, marginalization and exclusion... We know that it will take courage to ensure that rights and freedoms are protected. But today, the bonds of our nation are stronger; the direction of our advance is clearer; and the common purpose of nation-building is compelling us to reach out to each other beyond our superficial differences in tribe, age, gender, religion and associations," she said.

Liberia has embarked on reform initiatives which have the potential to address factors which drove its past conflicts and contribute to its persistent poverty. Deep-rooted structural changes which will move Liberia closer to being a more inclusive, participatory, just and stable society include reform of land policy, local governance, the security sector, and of the constitution itself. For these reforms to succeed, socio-cultural shifts about the role of women and girls in public and private life are also fundamental. Liberians--women and men alike--need to raise their voices and demand equality for women and girls in all spheres of society.

The full and equal participation of women and girls in Liberia's development and governance is the country's gain; when women are empowered, nations are transformed. Today, on International Women's Day, the United Nations highlights the importance of equality for women and girls to bring about greater social, economic and political progress. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the fragile countries, such as Liberia, where past war and poverty have left the greatest need for transformation.

Find out more about the UN Mission in Liberia and the work of UN Peacekeeping to protect and empower women.

Karin Landgren is the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Coordinator of United Nations Operations in Liberia.