What Has Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Done for Liberian Women?

October 18, 2011 | Amy Costello

Etweda “Sugars” Cooper helped found the Liberian Women’s Initiative in 1994 to press for disarmament and free and fair elections in Liberia. She’s one of the activists featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about a group of Liberian women who successfully negotiated a settlement to end Liberia’s 14-year civil war.

We spoke to Cooper about the recent elections in her country, in which Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is running for re-election.

Sirleaf didn’t garner the majority of votes she needed to win, so she now faces a run-off against former UN diplomat, Winston Tubman. A few days ago, Tubman and other opposition parties had said they were going to pull out of the election, alleging ballot rigging that favored of the incumbent. But outside observers declared the elections free and fair and Tubman now says he’ll take part in the run-off after all.

When we spoke to Cooper she said she was hoping for a Sirleaf victory.

What issues are at stake for women in these elections?
We are very concerned about peace and security. We think civil liberties and freedom of expression are vital because it sustains the peace. Sustainable development is very important because without development people begin to get anxious and frustrated. We are also worried about the small arms trade in our region. Most especially, we don’t want violence again.

Are you concerned that there might be violence given the disputes over the recent elections?
I think there are people who are posturing in this campaign. Even before the elections, one opposition party said that they wouldn’t accept the results. So they had made up their minds already that they were not going to accept results! Everyone who observed the elections knows they were free and fair. There was no way you could cheat. So to say the elections were flawed and that there were so many irregularities, that’s just an attempt to call attention to themselves.

How do you respond to critics who say that Sirleaf hasn’t done enough during her presidency to address pressing social issues like poverty and unemployment?
Quite frankly, for every year of crisis and war it takes you nine years to recover. Madame Sirleaf has helped us erase our national debt, schools are being built and enrollment is up. There’s more access to health services and better roads. So I don’t think they’ve been right to criticize.

What about the argument that the Harvard-trained president is out of touch with the people?
I don’t know how being educated at Harvard has anything to do with it. Madam Sirleaf is more grassroots than (opposition candidate and Harvard-educated) Winston Tubman. [Sirleaf’s] the kind of person who works with everyone for the interests of Liberia. She puts Liberians first. It’s for them she works. She’s creating a middle class. But all these things take time. She can’t do it in six years! She won’t be able to do all of it in 12 years but she’ll have to leave then due to the constitution. War destroyed our country, our infrastructure, our systems. Everything broke down.

What’s biggest change for women in Liberia since a woman was elected president?
There’s a sense of pride among women that, ‘I can do this!’ It’s helped build confidence in themselves. And there are many projects and opportunities going on for women. There are more women in government today and more women employed in the private sector. The gender agenda is being pursued. And the mere fact that we have freedom of expression and freedom of movement, that we’re not being harassed by security services, that makes it very different from the past. You can talk about rape now and not be stigmatized and justice is being pursued.

Has having a female president changed the way women are perceived within Liberia? What kind of actual changes have you seen with respect to women during her term?
As part of our Independence Day celebrations, we had as our national orator a female businesswoman (Garmai Estella Korboi Calvins) who had been a refugee in Guinea. And I’m sure that she never dreamed that she’d be the orator for our Independence Day celebrations. She succeeded in building her business and she’s employing more and more people. There are other women who are doing things and standing up for themselves and they see Madame Sirleaf, as well as our other Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Leymah Gbowee, as role models.

How did Liberians receive the news that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had won the Nobel Peace Prize?
It was a moment of great pride for us, especially because we had not one winner, but two! And two generations! I know Leymah very well. And looking at Leymah, and what she’s accomplished as a young woman, it made lots of Liberians very proud.

Anything else you want to add?
The women in Liberia are very resilient human beings. And we can assure you that these elections will not generate into a crisis. Because we are determined that it will not. And as women we are doing what we can to ensure that nothing like that happens. And now, the opposition is getting to understand that our children are no longer going to be used as cannon fodder and that our children need to remain free and safe. This democracy that we are working so hard at, we are going to keep it, we are going to make sure it stays.