When Liberians go to the polls on October 10, they will see more women on the ballots. That is, if 138 “women’s leadership boot camp” graduates have anything to say about it.
Although in 2005 Liberians elected Africa’s first woman head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, women continue to be underrepresented as voters, political party leaders and activists, and elected officials. Less than 10 percent of Liberia’s legislators are women, and nearly 10 percent fewer women than men were registered to vote in the last election.
In 2017, these 138 Liberian women are determined to close that gap.
The boot camp, held from January 30 - February 3, 2017, was just the first stage of “Getting Ready to Lead” (GRTL), a women’s leadership program to train and mentor women with ambition to be more involved in politics.
Before even arriving at the boot camp, the women underwent a rigorous application process. NDI received nearly 300 applications from aspiring political leaders. After conducting over 200 interviews, NDI narrowed the field to 146 participants. The GRTL class comes from all 15 counties in Liberia and includes accountants, lawyers, civil society activists, health professionals, a geologist, farmers, students, teachers, social workers, pastors, journalists and business women. Some are experienced politicians, while others are barely old enough to vote. Eighty-six -- well over half of the women -- plan to run for elected office in 2017.
The boot camp introduced the women participants to the skills and strategies needed to navigate politics as voters, policy activists, campaign workers and political candidates. Mimicking the fast-paced, high intensity of a political campaign, the boot camp cycled participants through panels, exercises, role plays and group work sessions. The women learned critical political and leadership skills including clear communication, crafting a personal message and brand, building a political base, effective fundraising strategies, campaign management and knowledge about Liberian electoral law.
The women also received invaluable counsel from Honorable Hanna Tetteh, Ghana’s first female foreign minister. She spoke of her experiences as a female candidate for parliament and how she maintained her confidence while receiving attacks from the media as well as members of her own party.
She told participants, the one piece of advice she wished she had received before launching her campaign is “never take no for an answer.”
The women also participated in a series of evening networking events that NDI coordinated with the U.S., Swedish and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) embassies. Armed with blank contact sheets to fill and a campaign pitch to deliver, the women honed their networking skills and made connections with prominent Liberians. “I met new people who I can look up to in the future for advice and inspiration,” said one participant about the networking events.
Another woman from rural Nimba County stated that the boot camp was one of the first times she truly got to know women from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia. Many participants made friendships with women from all over the country, overcoming traditional geographic divides.
Even before the workshop ended, the women were already taking steps to connect with one another and plan for the future. Ten of the younger participants took the stage and offered to work as campaign managers for women running for office. After learning how important it was to ensure that members of their constituencies registered to vote during the nation’s registration exercise -- ongoing from February 1 - March 7 -- women used every break to make a flurry of calls to friends, family and supporters to mobilize efforts to get potential voters to the registrations centers.
While the boot camp provided the women with the foundational skills and knowledge needed to participate in a campaign, “Getting Ready to Lead” is just the beginning. Of the 146 total participants, 138 completed the boot camp and will have the opportunity to participate in a series of advanced trainings and mentoring sessions throughout their leadership journey in this election year.
At a boisterous graduation ceremony, the 138 graduates received embossed certificates and a signature “Getting Ready to Lead” graduate lapel pin. For some of the women, it was the first time they had ever received a certificate celebrating their achievements. U.S. Ambassador Christine Elder captured the women’s “can-do” spirit in her closing remarks. “The women of Liberia have incredible grit. Your persistence in pursuing equality, education, leadership and peace has changed this country and will continue to change it in 2017 and beyond.”
With presidential and legislative elections taking place on October 10, 2017, these Liberian women are ready to make a lasting impact on their country’s future. In fact, they’ve already started to.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is implementing GRTL as part of the Liberian Elections and Political Transitions program funded by the United States Agency for International Development.