Liberian female labor

One of the central issues that Liberia, one of the most impoverished nations on the planet, faces in implementing plans for economic development is the status of its working women. This is worth studying because of the enormous role that women play in its labor force, actually making up a numerical majority (54%) of the country’s working public. The problem Liberia faces is that, if its economy continues to expand on its current path (toward a strong focus on mining and forestry), the percentage of women contributing to the Liberian economy (the majority of whom are in the informal market and agricultural sectors) will be significantly reduced. We will see that this is certainly not ideal, as the women of Liberia have demonstrated a strong work ethic and not utilizing the full extent of their labor would be wasteful.
Literature Review

We will begin our review of the literature on Liberian female labor with a paper by Dorothy Davis (et. al.) titled “The Silent Majority: The Liberian Market Women and the Informal Economy of Post-War Liberia.” It is important to first address what exactly a “market woman” is, and the answer for the purposes of this paper is fairly simple: it’s just a Liberian woman who participates by selling goods, usually on very small/individual scale in the country’s informal market…so essentially a street vendor. Davis’s study examines the role that the informal sector and, more specifically, the “market women” that make up a large part of that sector, have played in the economy of Liberia. She also addresses the systemic disadvantages that this group of women must contend with in running their businesses.

Davis’s paper begins by addressing the importance of informal markets (which the market women are a part of) play in Liberia and other developing nations. Contrary to what many economists believe (that the untaxed, unregulated nature of the informal sector is seemingly problematic), Davis posits that the informal sector has actually provided a much needed service for Liberia’s populace. She believes that the informal markets, like the one the market women comprise, can positively stimulate the economy “through wealth creation and private investments,” (61) and that they can also contribute to poverty reduction through job creation in both rural and urban areas. This is an important conclusion to remember if we are to, later, make the argument that maintaining the market women in Liberia is important in advancing the nation’s development.

Before moving on to address some of the socio-political factors that put women at an economic disadvantage to men in Liberia (which we’ll discuss below), Davis drives home the point of the informal economy’s market women being important. She achieves this by devoting a section of her paper to the fact that even the president of Liberia, Nobel Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has recognized the importance of market women in the economy. The president’s support of the market women is explicitly and unquestionably showcased by her personal creation of the “Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund of Liberia” only ten days after taking office. One may wonder, though, why a sector as large and vital as the market women’s’ is in need of a relief fund in the first place. The answer is that, though very important, the informal positions market women commonly hold in Liberia are very low paying on an individual level. But why is this?

Given the importance in Liberia of social status on economic standing, the methodology that Davis employs in answering this question is the political economy approach—with particular focus on “economic factors in the explanation of social life. She posits that the market women are at a disadvantage to market men because of the subordinate social position of Liberian women in general. The men who participate in the informal market sector are generally more successful than the women, because the men’s superior social position means they tend to have more education, money, and contacts than their female counterparts. Indeed, Davis makes it clear that improving the social position of women, by reducing the subservient role they currently play in society, is vital in allowing them more equal economic opportunities.

The second piece of literature that we’ll touch on is a paper by Emily Stanger and Molly Kinder: “Fulfilling President Sirleaf’s Mandate: Ensuring Women Their ‘Proper Place’ in Liberia’s Economic Development.” Far less specific in scope than Davis’s paper on market women, the 27 page work of Stanger and Kinder is an extremely comprehensive summary of the interaction of women with the labor force/economy of Liberia. Extremely well-organized, the paper starts out by giving an economic profile of Liberian women and the problems they face: that they make up a majority of the labor force, are clustered in the informal sector and agriculture, experience wage discrimination, etc. They then move on to discuss Liberia’s projected growth plan with regard to how the proposed growth will affect men and women differently (women will be squeezed out because Liberia is expanding into male-dominated industries). Seeing women being squeezed out of the labor market as an obvious loss of economic growth potential, Stanger and Kinder go on to make a list of policy recommendations for maintaining women’s role in the economy. Stanger and Kinder do, however, eventually conclude that, no how insightful their pro-women policies, the economic forces of comparative advantage can’t be ignored (Liberia happens to be rich in resources that require heavy, male-dominated labor). Thus, most economic growth in the coming years will favor the nation’s men. This is a very important point to take away from their paper—that, though we will still make policy recommendations for promoting women’s labor in Liberia later on in this paper, it is very likely that (because of the current market conditions in Liberia) the real-world effectiveness of said policies would be questionable at best.

Though it proves very difficult to expand on the comprehensive economic back ground analysis, labor growth projections, and policy recommendations provided by Stanger and Kinder, a markedly shorter article by Hala Hanna and Anna Lucia Alfaro entitled “The Future of Development in Liberia: Keeping Women on the Agenda” does just that. Though they do make many of the same statements as the two above articles, Hanna and Alfaro are differentiated in their emphasis on the importance of education in stimulating economic development for women. Inequality in education leads to fundamental inequality in all other aspects of economic life. They come to the fairly predictable conclusion that Liberia must take steps to reduce its levels of gender inequality, paying special attention to women’s rights.

The main issue at hand for the female laborers of Liberia, is how they will improve their currently disadvantaged economic position in the face of a looming national development policy that will likely tip the scales even more in favor of Liberia’s male laborers. Indeed, Liberia’s expansion policy into the male-dominated industries of mining and forestry (in which Liberia has comparative advantage, i.e. is a very efficient producer) will undoubtedly reap benefits for the nation’s men. But how will women, being excluded from the aforementioned male-dominated workforce, go about improving their socio-economic status and reaping the fruits (jobs) of Liberia’s postwar development?

To begin addressing these issues the current status of women in Liberia’s labor force must be examined. It is important to note that the civil war that ravaged Liberia for fourteen years prevented any data from being gathered on Liberian women’s (or any Liberian’s) economic activities until recently (2007), so any attempt to analyze the economic state of its women in recent history proves somewhat impossible. Far from being just a disruptor of data collection, though, the war also played an enormous role in shaping the current women’s labor market in Liberia today. The disruption in the formal sector of Liberia’s economy caused by the war spurred the growth of the nation’s informal sector, which came to be relied on to provide jobs and services the population. In the recent census following the war, a staggering 90% of working women were employed in either the informal sector or agriculture (two of the least productive sectors of the economy). Compare that with 75% of men working in these low-income sectors and it becomes clear that there is fundamental inequality taking place between the jobs for which men vs. women are hired. As one might expect, given that 90% of women work in two sectors, the remaining job sectors (which include most of the skilled labor) in Liberia’s economy are male-dominated. Yet another statistic that exhibits gender inequality is the fact that, despite having a higher rate of self-employment than men, women make up only 37% of the self-employed who have employees working for them. In urban areas, men are also 2.5x as likely to be skilled workers, a disparity can be explained by the significant gap in education between the average Liberian man and woman—urban adult women are 3x more likely than their male counterparts to have never received any schooling. This education gap has been addressed in recent years, however, under the Presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Though older generations of men and women still experience disparities in educational levels, this gap has now been mostly eliminated at the primary school level (which currently sees equal enrollment of boys and girls). Only time will tell if the current primary school girls will continue with their educations, and thus prevent the continuation of the pervasive educational gap between Liberian men and women.

According to the data-analysis above, that women in Liberia truly do play a major role in the Liberian labor force and economy. And yet, despite this significant contribution, they are not distributed equally throughout the labor force—not for lack of potential or will but because of disparities in education and skills between men and women. It should also be noted that Liberian men and women are also not remunerated for their work, though this is an issue that many developed nations face as well.

In order to examine the issues Liberia will confront in the future, their current economic status must be studied. Now that we have a clear picture of the current economic status of Liberian women, we can begin to look at the issues they will be confronted with as Liberia’s projected growth plan comes into reality. Again, the main problem the female laborers will face is having their share of the economic pie, in regard to labor contribution, be reduced. This reduction of women’s respective pie share will happen as Liberia shifts toward its competitive advantage, but not women-friendly, industries of mining and forestry.

Liberia predicts dramatic levels of development in the coming years, with projected growths in mining and forestry sectors of 137% and 17%, respectively. Agriculture’s GDP contribution, on the other hand, is projected to drop sharply: from 56% to 36% over three years as the country develops. This is mostly a good thing, and the rural-to-urban migration these changes imply is consistent with the Harris-Todaro model of migration. The projected economic shift will have very negative implications for the women of Liberia. This is because the growing industries, mining and forestry, have extremely low rates of female employment: 8% and 22%, respectively. Indeed, 77% of absolute growth in GDP in the coming years is expected to be produced by male labor. As one might imagine, as these male-dominated sectors grow to take up larger and larger shares of the economy, the percentage contribution of women to GDP will in turn decline.

If all gender-related economic policies in Liberia are left the same, the percentage share of women laborers’ contribution to Liberian GDP will decrease under the coming expansion policy. The absolute value of their GDP contribution, however, is still projected to rise. This fact is a testament to how significantly the Liberian economy will be growing very significantly in coming years. In the next section I will suggest economic policies that can be implemented so that Liberian women receive their fair share of this growth. And so that they may prevent marginalization and maintain (if not even improve) their standing in the labor force, even in the face of imminent expansion by male-dominated industries.

As we conclude our discussion of the women’s labor in Liberia a few important takeaways that we get from our analysis should be addressed. The first is that the women of Liberia are not at all a marginalized group within the Liberian labor force: rather, they make up the majority of it. What they do suffer from in the labor market is under-representation in certain industries (especially in skilled labor due to educational disparities) and over-representation in other sectors (agriculture and the informal sector). The movements toward male/female educational uniformity that are being implemented now should help reduce future gender inequality, but only time will tell by how much. For now the most pressing issue for Liberian women is having their share of the labor market reduced by the expansion of male-dominated industries. It is argued in this paper, however, that women can maintain their share of the economic pie in the face of this expansion through the strengthening of sectors that they already dominate, as well as the creation of new, women-centric labor sectors. Liberian women clearly have the drive to work; it’s now up the Liberian government to maintain their opportunity to do so if the country wishes to reap the maximum potential benefits from its economic expansion.

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