registering women to vote -- 3/31/20
Today's selection -- from Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Helene Cooper. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was one of the candidates running for president of Liberia. Voter registration was to take place between April 24 and May 24 for the October election. In early May, as the registration deadline was approaching, Vabah Gayflor, the head of the Ministry for Gender, realized women were not registering to vote. And she set out to fix that:
"As the head of the Ministry of Gender, Gayflor's job was supposed to be about helping women and children get access to health care, school feeding programs (in a postwar country with hardly any schools), antimalaria drugs, maternal support groups, rape support groups, and more. But Gayflor did not view her job that way. She had decided that all those nice programs for women would be available only if there was a woman at the top to supply them. So she decided her job as minister of gender was to get a woman elected president. And on the morning of May 2, she was not happy with the news she had just gotten from the National Elections Commission: of the 100,000 Liberians who had registered to vote in the first week of the month-long registration drive, only 15 percent were women.
"Who was registering instead? Former combatants -- from LURD, [Charles] Taylor's NPFL, and all the other armed groups. Gayflor was appalled. ... The men were holding mass rallies to urge their supporters to vote. But market women didn't have time to go to mass rallies. They were busy trying to make a living. Gayflor and Cooper realized they were going to have to try a different strategy.
"Quickly they and Parleh Harris, another Gender Ministry official, organized a group to use the radio stations to plead, 'Women, oh women! Y'all gotta register to vote.' They fanned out to the Monrovia markets, from the Rally Time Market across from BTC to the Nancy Doe Market in Sinkor, corralling the women who had set up shop to sell potato greens, kola nuts, soap, and bread.
"At first, some of the women balked; they had their wares or their babies to tend. But Cooper was ready for them. 'You selling your bitterballs and your okra?' She asked. 'We will mind it for you. Go register.' And young aides dispatched by Cooper and Gayflor tended their stalls for the women while they left to register. For young mothers who said they couldn't register because they had children to mind, Harris had nannies at the ready. 'Bring your baby,' she said. 'Let me hold your baby. Go register.' ...
"But it wasn't enough to register the women in Monrovia. The Liberian bush loomed, large, imposing, and filled with village women. 'We got to get out of the city because if we don't do something up country, we are doomed,' Gayflor said.
"They bought bullhorns and scattered their troops along the road to Cape Mount, to Gborpolu, to Margibi, to Gbarnga, all the way to Nimba, along the traditional pathways used by market women to bring their wares into the cities. 'Women, oh women!' they yelled into the bullhorns. 'Go register.'
"Up country, Gayflor asked the officials at the local registration office to set up mobile registration stands in the villages deep in the bush, to take the registration process to the people. They agreed. So she and Cooper and other women activists walked three, five, seven hours into villages deep in the bush, with their mobile stands, to register women to vote. Men came to register as well, and Gayflor and Cooper didn't turn them away. But they focused on the women. ...
"[When] the final [registration] figures [were released by the registration commission]: 1.5 million Liberians out of the country's 3 million population had registered to vote. And they released an even more important number: 51 -- the percentage of registered voters who were women."
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the 2005 presidential election. Becoming the first woman elected head of state in Africa's history.