Source: Heritage
A well built feminine structure, with a straightforward posture, in her early 60s but still very nimble and persuasive, Madam Martorma Saryon is Lofa County first female Paramount Chief in the political history of that far northern Liberian county. Lofa County is situated in the northernmost portion of Liberia, with seven political districts, Voinjama serving as the Capital City.

The county's land area measures 9,982 square kilometers (3,854 sq mi), and it is one of 15 counties that comprise the first-level of administrative division in the country.

In a Heritage Newspaper's recent conversation with the Lofa County newly enthroned first female Paramount Chief at the administrative district headquarters of her Salayea District control area, Madam Saryon spoke highly of Liberia and Africa first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the Liberian leader's quest for increased women's representation in government.

"She has really opened the way for more women [to participate in the governance process of the country], Paramount Chief Saryon said of President Johnson-Sirleaf, stating that she is inspired by the president, and is therefore prepared to fully discharge the confidence reposed in her to serve as Paramount Chief of Salayea District yea, Lofa County first female Paramount Chief.

Madam Saryon is of the ardent belief that what their [Liberian women] male counterparts are capable of contributing to the governance process of Liberia, they too of the opposite sex, if given the opportunity, are equally capable of copiously delivering to their land of nativity.

Before accepting to take further questions on the local politics of Lofa County, the influential Lofa County first female Paramount Chief firstly stressed that it was important to clear her chest of what she calls the burning issue of increased women representation at all levels of the Liberian government. She did not hold back her support for more women to be represented in government, juxtaposed to their male compatriots.

Following years of Liberia's fratricidal civil war and political hurly-burly, the world's view of Liberian politics has to a larger extent started to change. During the period covering the two full tenure of Her Excellency Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman to hold presidential office on the continent of Africa and in her homeland-Liberia, women's visibility in political offices has significantly increased. Shortly after she came to power in 2006, President Johnson-Sirleaf made it abundantly clear that women had a future in her administration and in the politics of the country as well.

She appointed several women to high-profile positions in her first cabinet, and a few months into her presidency, the Liberian leader intoned that while she "didn't dare have an all-women Cabinet," she had toyed with that idea. She saw to it that women were strategically placed in the ministries of finance, justice and commerce, sending "a strong signal that we believe that women who have the competence ... based on our experience, do have a higher level of integrity." With Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia now for a second term, women have, to a greater degree than before, been appointed to official government positions that have too often probably been reserved for men; having as examples the appointments of female ambassadors to Belgium, China, Germany, the Nordic countries, Côte d'Ivoire and South Africa, as well as the appointments of the former acting Mayor of Monrovia, the first post-war Inspector-General of the Liberia National Police, as are at least 5 of 15 superintendents of the 15 Liberian political sub-divisions and other women to very high-status government posts.

Howbeit, it is totally relevant to mention that these positions which these females have either served in the past or are currently occupying are government appointments, and not elected offices. The crux of the matter is that the Liberian political chemistry have not be able to distil a mixture of political chemical, wherein huge number of men and a sizable number of women alike are elected by the Liberian people into public offices, particularly the Legislature. This is exactly where the challenge and dilemma down-pinning equal women's participation in the political process of Liberia is tightly hinged. The current configuration of the both Houses of the bicameral Liberian Legislature have a total of 94 members combined, with females making up for just an estimated 22%; six females in the House of Representatives and four in the Upper House of Senate. This scenario may be safely described as a political situation where Women's participation in the country's political process is dependent on the government's will, rather than the will of the people at the ballot box.

Liberia has in recent years witnessed heightened demands made for 30% women representation in parliament, with the Women's Wing of the governing Unity Party (UP) in 2004, calling upon the country's electoral body, the National Elections Commission (NEC) to ensure that 30 percent rights for women's representation at all levels of decision making in Government be reflected in the Elections Law of Liberia.

At the time, the UP Women's Wing, through its Chairlady Ms. Esther Liberty said the reflection of this clause in the Elections Law would give the women of Liberia the guarantee to be represented at such percentage in Government.

Her argument then was to later be buttressed, when in January this year, despite a legislative action quashing a bill seeking 30% representation of women at all levels of governance, a three-day symposium on gender issues organized to impact the 1986 constitutional review process in Monrovia witnessed several women groups calling for the preservation of certain basic rights in the Liberian Constitution seeking equal participation in political governance.

During the ceremony marking the official commencement of the three-day symposium, a visiting American Professor from the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University, Susan Williams, described any constitution that does not address the issue of women in any country as "undemocratic."

Prof. Williams made the observation that the constitution of any nation is the foundation of a stable and prosperous democracy, stating that women's issue is an integral part of any good constitution without which, one cannot build a strong country.

Said Prof. Williams: "Women are over 50% of the population of Liberia. Any constitution that does not include women's perspective and address women's concerns cannot be called democratic," adding that many countries have neglected this fact by excluding women from their governance process.

But as it is, the Executive Branch of the Government of Liberia has expressly declared its aspiration to increase the formal political influence and representation of Liberian women in the governance of the country, but the male-dominated Liberian Legislature has obstructed much of the efforts from the Executive Branch.

However, Lofa County First Female Paramount Chief Martorma Saryon wants more attention given to women's ascendency to political offices in the country, stating that men must afford Liberian females the courtesy and opportunity to occupy more and more political seats.

She explained that increasing women's representation in the governance process of Liberia will empower women, adding that an increased women's representation in the Government is necessary to achieve gender balance.

She warned men and other women standing in the way of equal representation for women in the politics of the land to desist, indicating that as the universally acclaimed caretakers of children, women in Liberia too have a more important role than men in advocating for children, emphasizing that to play such an advocacy role for children here in Liberia, women's representation in government must be guaranteed.

In line with the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which went into force in 1954, enshrining women's equal rights to vote, hold office, and access public services as provided for male citizens within national laws, research shows that in national legislatures across the world, there is a remarkable trend of women advancing gender and family-friendly legislation. This advocacy has been seen in countries ranging from France, Sweden and the Netherlands, to South Africa, Rwanda, and Egypt. Furthermore, a number of studies from both industrialized and developed countries signify that women in local government are more inclined to advancing social issues. In India, for instance, greater women's representation has corresponded with a more equitable distribution of community resources, including more gender-sensitive spending on programs related to health, nutrition, and education.

Like the United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which preserves women's equal rights to vote, hold office, and access public services as provided for male citizens within national laws, Madam Saryon, a former Town Chief of Kparyorkolleh Town, Gbarlen Clan, Lofa County and now Paramount Chief of Salayea District, recommends that there should be a law enacted to ensure increased female representation in Liberia's governance process.

The first woman from Lofa County and the 19th Liberian woman to rise to the paramount chieftaincy post, recounted that Women in Liberia have for so long been faced with numerous impediments in achieving representation in the governance of the country.

"For women to participate in Liberian politics, it has been so hard, because many people here believe that the only area suitable for us [Liberian women] is in the kitchen or the home." "This is not true; we too can make the difference in government if you put us there," said Paramount Chief Martorma Saryon.

The rather ambitious record setting first female Town Chief of Kparyorkolleh Town and Lofa County, now first female Paramount Chief of Salayea District and Lofa County averred that as a way of justifying her representation in government, she has earmarked a list of deliverables that her leadership would fulfill to the people of Lofa in particular and to Liberia in general.

The development of Lofa County through the construction of modern youth centers, with state of the art equipment for the human capacity development of young people in her county; the provision of sufficient up to date health facilities and the availability of medical drugs to boost the health delivery system of the county; the empowerment of women through supply of farming implements to ensure sustained farming activities amongst women groups in Lofa County, are top priorities on the Paramount Chief's list of deliverables.

However, one thing that is certain is that she may not securely settle down to actualize any of her deliverables which she still has on paper; unless she gets to cross some very scaring hurdles that seemed to be standing in the way of the success of her leadership so audaciously.

She divulged that one of such hurdles she endeavors to firstly surmount is the issue with having to win the confidence of the dozens of Lofa males, who initially opposed her ascendency to the top post, on grounds that she is a female, who as the Paramount Chief of one of the political districts of the renowned tradition-sensitive Lofa County would among other things be rendered incapable of attending and performing the dominant male related traditional functions and rituals of that land. Winning the support of such men, some of whom are very powerful traditionalists, while others are influential political figures of Lofa, could prove to be a real headache to the leadership of the somewhat Lofa County strong woman.

The issue of furnishing both her newly found home and an official office at the Salaye District Compound, as she is yet to receive her first salary since taking over in November 2012 as Paramount Chief, could just be another colossal problem that she will have to come to grips with, and do so in a matter of jiffy too, if she should deliver on the job and pave the way for increased women representation in Lofa and perhaps elsewhere in Liberia.



Madam Martorma Soryon, First Female Paramount Chief of Lofa County

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