The Role and Status of Liberian Women

By Samuel Zohnjaty Joe

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 15, 2004

I. Introduction
How can improvement in the role and status of Liberian women have a beneficial impact on development prospects in Liberia? This kind of question would in normal circumstances generate a lot of theories and propositions by economists, politicians, journalists, and market women. This is a very critical question to address; owing to the fact Liberia as a nation we never had a defined economic approach to poverty alleviation in the sector in question. Also, there is no real research that I am aware of that attempted to address the disparities and inequality between Liberian men and women, be it in economic development, politics, and or education. Since I started knowing myself as a person, involves in politics and nationhood, women in Liberia were always given huge potatoes respect; that is, there is courteous treatment in public for them, (ladies before gentlemen), but were never given meaningful roles to contribute their talents, skills, and intellectual abilities as a constituency. From viewing the social structure, it is clear women make up the majority of rural dwellers that contribute to the social and economic development of their villages in Liberia. It is within this context that this question becomes relevant in future discussions about economic development in Liberia, so that we as a people will be mindful as we move towards the reconstruction of Liberia to guarantee women roles in development and politics.

This article will attempt to answer this question from the point of view of certain economic development theories. As it is clearly noted by many studies, Liberia has been and is a nation that relies hugely on the traditional economy to function. Besides Monrovia, every sector of the Liberian economy is traditional, ranging from farming to trading, and so are the women who play a vital role in the economy and development of the country.

II. Women and tradition

I was born and raised in Bargblo Town, Grand Gedeh County, in the southeastern part of Liberia. Culturally, we know women to be the centerpiece of family stability, always available to providing financial and moral support, serving as peacemakers and ensuring social stability for the family and the entire community. It is in light of the important role women play in the economic development of communities around the world that prompted the International Labor Office in Geneva to issue a statement that emphasizes the impact of women’s economic vulnerability and its adverse consequences if nothing is done to address the HIV epidemic that is affecting this constituency in Africa. “At the height of these issues are women’s most fundamental rights, both personal and social, including their value as economic agents” (Africa Development Forum, 2000). This statement touches the core of the question as regarding our economic development programs during the forthcoming reconstruction of Liberia.

One would concur with the idea that women’s economic contribution consists of not only their reproductive work, but also their productive work as part of a household unit. The significant part of Liberian women’s work ranges from cutting firewood, to tending to children, weeding vegetables, preparing family dining and working overtime to ensure there is enough food, ensuring children’s school fees are paid and working professional jobs. Although in the Liberian economy women’s contributions are not measured in GDP terms that does not alter the society’s economic dependence on them. Hence, the importance of women in social and economic development in this society cannot be overemphasized.

III. Women and development

To begin the discussion of this topic, it is fair to borrow the definition of Amartya Sen; that “development is a process of expanding human freedom”. In order words, one should not be denied the political and civil liberties, nor should he/she be restricted to participate in social, political and economic life of the community. The removal of the unfreedom is attributed to providing the liberty of political participation, the opportunity to receive basic education and health care.

It is within this light that development thinking from economic development perspective views inequality as an approach that produces inefficiency and brings about income disparities. Because according to Sen, the rejection of the freedom to participate in the labor market is one of the ways of keeping people in bondage and captivity. It is the battle against unfreedom of bond labor, according to Sen that led to American Civil war gaining much momentum at the time. It is therefore fair to mention that inequality is unfreedom that has the propensity to undermine social stability and solidarity. Hence, Liberia past economic development policy, vis-à-vis the treatment of women’s contribution as an insignificant factor to development is one of the factors responsible for the upheavals and extended civil strife the country is experiencing.

Owing to Liberia’s past economic development policy, one would believe the country may be operating the modern-sector enrichment economic growth system, or what economic scholars would call typology. In this sector, according to Todaro, M.P. and Smith, S.C., there is a growth in the economy, but such is limited to a fixed number of people, with both the numbers of workers and their wages held constant in the traditional sector, (P221). A clear example of this theory relates to Liberia’s former and present leaders. The down side to this kind of economic system according to Todaro and Smith is a steady rise in inequality. Even though there may be growth and higher incomes, there is always also less equal relative distribution of income, and no change in poverty.

Considering that we are post war country, deeply traumatized from 14 years of the civil war, the country is not even ready for modern-sector enlargement economic growth system either, for security reason. Because in this sector, according to Todaro and Smith, absolute incomes increase the rise in poverty while absolute poverty is reduced, but there is a possibility for inequality to worsen, especially when the style of growth experiences predominant. Inequality is likely to worsen first in the early stage of development before its fall. This may not be in our best interest for now since most of the school-going children in Liberia are out there toting guns, and about 98 percent of the population is below the poverty line as the result of 14 years of protracted civil war. Most women who serve the traditional economic sector to make it a productive sector are either internally displaced, lingering in refugees’ camps in the neighboring countries and or elsewhere around the world.

However, since the bulk of Liberia’s economic activity and functionaries lie in rural Liberia, including women who serve as the pillars for the rural economy, it would be economically prudent to use the traditional-sector enrichment typology where growth results in higher incomes, a more equal relative distribution of income, and less poverty. This will benefit the larger population, specifically women who work in the traditional economy.

IV. Reconstruction Paradigm

In conclusion, common sense, supported by a wealth of recent empirical data, bears witness to the fact, that while it is true middle class has the higher savings rates, the marginal savings rates of the poor, when viewed from a holistic perspective, is not small either. Hence, in addition to financial savings, the poor tends to spend additional income on improved nutrition, education for their children, improvements in housing conditions, and other expenditures, that when put into context at poverty levels, represents investment rather than consumptions.

The findings on poverty alleviation of the World Bank 1990 reports conclude that discussions of policy towards the poor usually focus on the trade-off between growth and poverty. But the review of experience suggests that this is not a critical trade-off, with appropriate policies, the poor can participate in growth and contribute to it, and when they do, rapid declines in poverty are consistent with sustained growth.

Since about 90 percent or more of our economic output comes from the traditional economy, Liberia should, therefore, adopt the peasant women and economic transformation methodology in the Gambia. Between 1968 – 1973. According to Judith A. Carney’s article in a book called the political economic development and underdevelopment, (p. 295), Sahelian drought virtually destroyed the agricultural sector of that country, a drought, which should have had a far-reaching effect on the peasant farmers generally, and specifically on women. This drought ushered in a new era of agricultural development strategy called “drought proofing regional economies”, a strategy initiated by the International Development Agencies. The response to this threat was to construct irrigation infrastructures to extended agriculture for year-round cultivation. The subsequent trajectory of the project was to emphasize rice and vegetables production, two crops traditionally grown by women. The International Donors and Gambian Government responded with policy and funding support for the project, realizing the potential of the two crops to improve foreign exchange reserves by reducing cereal inputs and developing Gambia’s comparative advantage as a winter vegetable supplier to European markets.

The learning experience from this initiative traces the convergence of contract farming with gender equity production over the past decade which illuminates three issues: 1) the specific positions women are accessing in national strategies of economic transformation, 2) the ways in which new forms of commoditization are heightening gender conflicts over access to productive resources, and 3) the significance of women’s strategies over land access for their participation in contract farming.

Applying this method in Liberia will not only promote Liberian women entrepreneur skills and/or boost the productive sector of our traditional economy, especially in agriculture, but would have far-reaching effects in sustainable economic development programs of Liberia. This would open the avenue to not only give Liberia as a nation competitive advantage, but also create exposure and business education to Liberian women. Also, the far-reaching effects would be felt in poverty alleviation, create a genuine framework for real disarmament, have significant psychological effects on demobilization of our youths, (about 68% now toting guns), and finally create social and economic stability for Liberian families.

About the Author: Mr. Samuel Zohnjaty Joe is an Economist. He has a MS degree in Global Economic development from Eastern University, Pennsylvania, USA and BBA degree in Management from the same University. He has worked in several capacities on development programs both in Liberia and the US, including the Agricultural Development Bank, National Investment Commission and the Ministry of Labor in Liberia. He served once as Refugee case manager, and Refugee Match Grand Program coordinator with a social service agency in Philadelphia, served as multi-cultural consultant with the Derby School System in Delaware County, PA. He can be contacted at: