In Liberia, women follow President Ellen to the Fore.
MS. MAGAZINE - WINTER 2007
ALETHA BROWNE'S FIRST ACT as Liberia's assistant minister of finance was to fire 3,400 people--nonexistent ghost workers draining the federal payroll, their fraudulent checks cashed for years by personnel directors.
Browne is part of Liberia's transformation, following a civil war that ravaged the small West African country for 14 years. When the voters elected Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, that "Iron Lady" brought in reformers, many of them women. Iron Ladies are now visible from the chief police posts to the Supreme Court bench.
"For the first time, you have a significant number of women in decision-making positions," says Ophelia Hoff-Saytumah, mayor of Monrovia, the country's capital. Of 19 cabinet ministers, six are female. A record 13 congresswomen hold seats (eight of 64 representatives, five of 30 senators); two of five Supreme Court justices are women, as are 33 percent of mayors. In a country where women bear an average of six children, the female literary is only about 40 percent and tribal hierarchies have excluded women from most decisions, this appearance of women in government is groundbreaking.
But the Iron Ladies have their hands full. With public resources, from hospitals to electrical plants, destroyed, they must regrow a nation from the ruins of war, and handle what decades of conflict left unsettled, including $3.7 billion in external debt.
"Keeping the national purse is critical to the health of the economy," says Browne, who moved back to Liberia after 20 years' exile in the U.S. to help snap Liberia's purse closed. Her boss, finance minister Antoinette Sayeh, also returned from abroad. Eight of Sayeh's highest-level staff members are women. "There's less corruption where women are in control," says Browne, nothing that the Johnson-Sirleaf administration has even managed to generate a revenue surplus.
"During 159 years of male presidents, Liberia was plagued by corruption, poverty, ethnic disunity and civil conflict," says former journalist Massa Washington, now a leading commissioner at Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Like many of the new women leaders, she never intended to serve in government. "We had no vested interest but peace in Liberia," she says, referring to activists who picketed the U.S. embassy, petitioned warlords and showed up uninvited at international peace conferences.
In the 2005 election, such activists proved effective at mobilizing voters. When the initial election narrowed the presidential race to a runoff between George Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf, the peace activists took to the streets, registering women by the busload. In under three weeks, the percentage of female registered voters jumped from 30 percent to 50 percent.
"If [Johnson-Sirleaf] fails," says Alomiza Ennos Barr, a former tire vendor now serving as congresswoman for the county containing the capital of Monrovia, "we fail women in Africa." A member of the opposition party, Barr nowadays allies herself with her gender first. Last spring, she founded a caucus for women in congress; despite partisan divides, all 13 joined, their priority to reserve 30 percent of government posts for women. They cite Rwandan women, who codified a 30 percent quota, then bettered it when women won 49 percent of congressional seats.
Whether or not women sweep the 2011 elections, Washington thinks gender norms have already been inverted. On assuming her post at the Commission, she noticed that male subordinates addressed her as "sir."