LIBERIA: Rebuilding Liberia: Women were Key in Ushering Peace, but still Suffer Violence Post War

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Providence Journal
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

It's hard to underscore enough the role women have played in Liberia's recent history.

During the civil war years (1989-2003), rape of women and girls was used by rival factions to humiliate and instill fear, according to Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The United Nations has estimated more than 40,000 women were raped during the war years.

But it was women who brought international attention to the bloodshed.

Holding massive sit-ins, public prayers and abstinence campaigns, they forced then-Liberian President Charles Taylor and the warlords fighting for control of the country to negotiate a cease fire and eventually helped convince international peace keeping forces to intervene to ensure stability.

Much of that work is vividly portrayed in the 2008 PBS documentary "Pray the Devil Back to Hell."

Today, women continue to have outsized influence on the nation's reputation on the global stage.

Liberia has Africa's first woman president in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

It is also home to two of the three women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011: President Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee, who is featured prominently in the PBS documentary.

Indeed, in a number of ways, life for women in post-war Liberia has brightened.

But ten years after the fighting, women and girls are still suffering.

Sexual violence against females remains one of the most frequently reported forms of violent crime in the country.

Rape even surpasses armed robbery as the nation's top reported crime.

And the World Health Organization says up to 77 percent of Liberian women have been a victim of sexual violence and 33 percent of married women report experiencing domestic violence.

Worse, the majority of victims are under the age of 16; forty percent are under age 12.

One thing I'll be exploring is how President Sirleaf's administration has done in meeting the goals laid out in her 2006 national action plan to address "gender based violence."

Despite establishment in 2009 of a dedicated court for sexual violence and stiffer penalties for rape, many blame the country's troubled judicial system.

"Liberia's justice system works too slowly, and many young victims' families tend to 'settle' rape cases, often with cash payments from the perpetrator," Karin Landgren, coordinator of the United Nations' Mission in Liberia, said in a March commentary for the Huffington Post. "Few rapists are held accountable in a court of law and a sense of impunity for such crimes prevails."

Violence against women was not necessarily something unique to the war years.

Liberia's traditional, male-dominated society is certainly a contributing factor. It's particularly problematic in remote rural areas of the country, where tribal norms persist and rates of HIV-infection continue to soar among young women.

Others suggest international humanitarian workers and military peacekeepers are also guilty of exacerbating the situation.

It seems counter-intuitive: women helped usher peace and stability to the country. But it appears they're still trapped in an abusive culture.