“I always say that to be a Minister in the government is an opportunity. It is a privilege; it is not a right that comes to you automatically. It’s an opportunity where you can serve and do your best.” - Vabah Kazaku Gayflor
iKNOW Politics: You have been an activist and worked on women’s issues for a long time. You have headed the Ministry of Gender and Development in Liberia since 2006 and are one of the Liberia’s so-called “Iron Ladies”. What challenges have you faced as a woman in political leadership, especially as a Minister? How have your background and prior experience helped you?
I began as an activist when I was in school, especially at university. We worked with political parties, but basically, we were mobilised by social justice issues. In 1985 I entered politics, working in the Ministry of Planning. I decided to set up a place for women to work, to make decisions, to discuss alternatives. My eyes began to open to the necessities of the people, especially women.
I also started recognizing the challenges that we faced as women and wanted to be involved with the processes, to see what would happen. The armed conflicts had a deep impact on us (1989-1996, 1999-2003). Despite my studies and degree, it took me five years to get a job. I could not feed my family, but I saw men doing business, going around, and assisting their families. I must do many things to sustain my family: I remember wearing jeans with sneakers, sitting near the river waiting for an opportunity. I realized that women have so much to give back to society if they are given the opportunities.
Entering the government, I was in a position where I could facilitate the processes and support them. So that is how it all started. I left to go to school and then I was really interested in women’s issues. I realized that this is where my own calling was, and I wanted to be there. In 1996, I became a refugee helper because of the resurgence in the fighting. Then I came back to work in the same department until I left to go to school in the Netherlands in 2001. There I got my Masters in Regional Development. I returned from training when the transitional government was formed and the previous one found refuge in Gambia. I was appointed Minister of Gender at this moment. I am the second Minister, because the position was created in March 2001. When I entered the Ministry we faced a number of challenges but we moved on to promote women and to sensitize them about their role in politics.
iKNOW Politics: Since late 2003 Liberia has been immersed in a post-conflict reconstruction process. What was the situation in the Ministry when you took office both at the infrastructural and programmatic levels? What were the first measures you took to organize the Ministry’s work?
We had a lot of challenges, infrastructural and structural ones. The office did not have a roof; it had an easily removable flat top. I had to sit on a chair that had three legs and was about to break. That is what began as the Ministry you see today. So I laughed at myself because this Ministry started as a unit.
They gave us Coca-Cola crates to sit on. The office was a shell. People could see me from outside, the doors were open, you could see into the building, birds could fly in, and there were no bathrooms. When it started to rain all we had were barrels, we had to move everything to avoid damages from the rain. And we have structural challenges: there was a lack of personnel capable of doing assessments on gender, to “mainstream” it in public policies. People were demoralized; you had to get them into a work attitude.
You had to encourage them to work and you had so much to do! I set up an HIV desk that was not here before. As the conflict went on, the situation changed. We each had to find people to be able to deal with this stuff. And also getting ourselves into the counties; there are 15 subdivisions of the country. It was a challenge but then you had to deal with it. In all of the counties, we had motorbikes that people used to move from place to place. Our presence began to be perceived; we built up relations with a lot of organizations, partners and groups.
iKNOW Politics: What are the steps that have been taken and/or will be taken to implement gender mainstreaming and raising the profile of women in the country, especially to encourage women’s participation in decision-making processes?
Women in politics…it was a challenge for the transitional government (2003-2005). We noticed that there was a lack of attention. In the National Assembly we had 72 men and 4 women. So we prepared a bill to encourage women to get into politics. Unfortunately that did not work well for us. The bill went to the legislators and they disregarded it. We were proposing to include women as 30% of the candidates. Despite this, some women decided to participate as candidates in the last elections (2005).
For the 2005 electoral process, we initiated affirmative action policies. I think it worked. As a result we came together and a female president, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was elected. She is the first woman to head a country in Africa. And 14% of the Liberian legislature is women. The President has been quite supportive. Women are put in positions of power, from the highest to lowest positions. Right now, 30% of public positions or elected seats are in the hands of women.
iKNOW Politics: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf´s administration has been very supportive on women issues in general. She has appointed women in key leadership positions. Among others, five women head ministries in Liberia. What are the main strategies that have been put in place towards achieving gender equity at all levels of the Liberian society?
We have taken different measures. First, we ask ourselves: what do we have available to use? Liberia is a signatory of a number of international conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on Human Rights and People´s Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.
Well, we want to utilize this framework and hold the government accountable for what we do to women. By harmonizing our laws with these conventions we believe we can launch a real transformation process. Second, we ask ourselves how we can be adequately prepared to participate in this process. And we support the government’s policy for education for young girls, to give them the opportunity to go to school. And also training women in human rights issues, civic education, so that they can understand the state’s abilities and so can expect the state to accept its responsibility. All of these women will be able to participate in local governments and in community development and county development committees. We also try to work with partners like the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), to improve our capacity to govern ourselves. We get trained and they support us as facilitators.
iKNOW Politics: Indigenous peoples in Liberia include sixteen ethnic groups. Does the Ministry of Gender and Development have in place inter-cultural programs to deal with indigenous women’s issues? What is the situation of indigenous women, especially indigenous women who want to access and participate in politics, on the Ministry’s agenda?
We do not see indigenous women in politics per se. We know that there are women’s organizations and we are trying to work with them. So it is not the policy per se, but to come up with programs that try to help the community. All of this is about self-esteem, about having access to resources, about moving back. It is about not asking men, “Why do I have to go there?” It is about carrying on with all of these issues. It is about having no borders; it is about women who have dared, being an example to others, saying that if we can do it, you can do it too. It is about knowing what you did not know before.
It is about inclusion. It is about letting them know that hey can participate in decision-making. And try to see how we can have meetings and make petitions so we can go back to the members of the constituencies and tell them what happened. Our quotas are a response to inequalities, but we also promote committees that are administering and participating in credit programs and in school buildings. They are working hard. These activities are important because they form a bulk of women’s activity in this country, and they are related to our own past and our own traditional practices. But we are also trying some other steps, special programs, religious programs, giving women access to funding. Because normally, the women do not have properties, and this limits their access to credit.
We have to go through lateral means to make sure that women have access to funding. We are especially concerned with giving women access to tools to cope with violence.
iKNOW Politics: The Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development is playing a fundamental role in the process of the 2009 International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace & Security, convened by the presidents of Liberia and Finland. How do you think the Colloquium´s process and outcomes could benefit the situation facing women in Liberia in the short and long terms?
We hope that the Colloquium will provide Liberia an opportunity to present us as a showcase that must be supported by the international community. It will be an excellent opportunity to talk about women in post-conflict situations, and to talk about the broader issue of gender-based violence. We will present our experiences on general counseling, access to credit, strengthening of individual capacities, and many other initiatives we have all around the country.
iKNOW Politics: What advice would you give to young women who are interested in getting involved in politics, but who feel it is a distant world that is beyond their reach?
All I can say is if you want to participate in politics, you have to have self-confidence; you have to believe in yourself. If you want to get the train to go into office, you have first to learn to walk. It is about being able to do that for yourself. Somebody else cannot do that for you. And sometimes we tend to see the problems and not the solutions. Always think on the positive side of everything. There might be some distractions, there might be some hindrances. And also, I think for those of us who dare to reach, we have to remember: If you believe in the cause of women, do not settle as a secondary leader.
You have to let people know what you stand for. You need to have principles, to have standards. You really need to rise above personal interests, and look at things objectively. Sometimes we allow too many personal issues to come into discussion, and you might not be as forthcoming as you need to be. And that can kind of thing complicates your leadership. It is about sticking to your guns. Why are you here? You are here on behalf of the people you represent, which might not necessarily be women. It is your country, do your best; any other time you might not have the ability to do that. You might need to just, just persevere.
iKNOW Politics: What kind of influence have networks and networking had on your work? Do you believe they are useful? In that context, what is your opinion of the iKNOW Politics initiative?
Well, networking has been our strength. We have been in politics, men and women, rallying around a common cause. And at a particular time, when all the women came together to rally around a cause, we did not remember our political lines. We look at the issue as a political issue, and so even women who are part of political parties or have certain political views, they rally around a woman’s issue in politics. They are focused and that is helpful. Therefore, initiatives like iKNOW Politics are very important.
iKNOW Politics: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers and readers around the world who will see this interview?
I always say that to be a Minister in the government is an opportunity. It is a privilege; it is not a right that comes to you automatically. It’s an opportunity where you can serve and do your best. And be remembered for the legacy that you left. I want to be remembered as the person who said I was able stand for what I believed in. I was able to support the cause of women and gender. I was able to look at the bigger picture where it helped to transform lives. I was able to look at a situation with morals, to be focused on what we all want to see. You can see this when a little girl started to go to school.
I was there when we brought in programs to change ordinary lives. Because this is a very rich country there is no reason why we have to suffer as we have suffered. If you look at the population of this country, we are almost 3.5 million and only 20 ministers for all the work that must be done. So to be selected is a privilege. I take this seriously as a woman who has not participated in politics before. I pray that we have many women social leaders who set themselves above themselves.
This is the case of our President in her service to our nation, and she really reaches out to other nations. It is an honor to be able to serve this social leader. I pray that God will give us the strength and the energy to discern to be able to do the best for our people. They have suffered enough and now it is the time for some form of dignity, and to have some semblance of normalcy. That is my dream and I hope it will come with this President.