When people's persistent demands to be heard fall upon deaf ears, the resultant effect is usually emotional outburst mostly done in an environment in which they feel they can attract attention. This was the scenario with hundreds of women, dressed up in two-piece green African lappa suits and green-and-white t-shirts, under the umbrella of the Coalition of Civil Society Women of Liberia, who last Tuesday stormed the Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS) in readiness to expose to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf what they described as “behind-the-scene happenings” in the administration of women's affairs in the country.
Tuesday, March 8, marked the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. United Nations Under-Secretary General and UN Women's Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, celebrated the day with Liberian women.
The group comprises 80 women organizations, most of them accounting for at least 150 members each. Through their leader, Roselyn Perkins, the women said they were protesting against their [alleged] exclusion from having a say in the planning process of events marking the Women's Day celebration by the Ministry of Gender and Development. The women also complained of a massive divide created between them and the rest of the women of Liberia by Gender Minister Varbah Gayflor. They further expressed dissatisfaction over what they described as “always being ignored by Minister Gayflor.”
“We are always left out when it comes to anything relating to women. So, we want our President and women the world over to know that a chunk of the Liberian women have always been denied any chance to have an audience with Gender Minister Gayflor. We want the world to know that Varbah has not been working with us. We are being sidelined when it comes to undertaking women-related activities in the country,” Roselyn told Observer's Women & Family.
Roselyn recalled that in last November, when the controversy between her group and the Gender Minister reached its peak, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had to mediate and find a resolution to the swelling beef.
“At that meeting, Varbah came up and said 'Look, let by-gones be by-gones. You people are my women. Let's work together.' It turned out that that was just a beautiful lip-service in front of Madam Sirleaf. Since that time up to now, whenever we go to the Gender Ministry to seek audience with Varbah, she always says she is busy. She never has time to listen to what we have to say. Varbah is a big problem and the longer she stays as Gender Minister, the more problems we foresee among the women,” Roselyn added.
Once in the stadium with their placards and banners, the women were immediately intercepted by [women] government officials in a bid to have their protest silenced. The staging of this non-violent protest was, without any further delay, censored by their fellow women, those in Government.
“If you cannot go to Gender Ministry to take up your issues, then do not embarrass Liberia because of Varbah Gayflor,” a female government official furiously told the women, while rallying support from security personnel on the field to have the women pushed in the back of the stadium.
“Is it because of Varbah that you want to disgrace Liberia?” yelled another prominent [female] government official who remained resolute in ensuring that the women were not spotted by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her special guest, Michelle Bachelet.
But Gender Minister Varbah Gayflor has described the women as “spoilers and troublemakers”.
Speaking to Women & Family yesterday, Minister Gayflor said the over 10,000 women who graced the International Women's Day celebration on last Tuesday were not individually (personally or organizationally) invited.
“The announcement was put on the radio and the planning process took six weeks,” she said.
The Minister, however, confirmed the November 2010 meeting with President Johnson Sirleaf and her statement to the women that “let by-gones be by-gones.”
Commenting on the women's claim that they have constantly been denied audience with her, Minister Gayflor said: “I never saw any letter from them and no one told me about their visit to the Ministry. If you have a serious issue, why not document and send it to me. And then, give me a chance to see who from within the Ministry sign for such communication without delivering it to me.”
Gender Minister Gayflor continued: “They said they were not given letters to the Women's Day event. How am I supposed to know? They are only troublemakers! In any case, if they have issues, why not take it up with the director of the Women's Division at the Ministry before coming to me? Why would they want to start with me first? I am the Minister. They've got to recognize the office! I wouldn't be chasing them.”
On the issue of the women being pushed to the rear of the stadium by other women, Minister Gayflor said: “If they were there earlier and seated with their placards, no one would have bothered them. But is it because they were protesting so they should have been given prime seats? Why give them prime seats?”
On the one hand, perhaps, Minister Gayflor might have a point in advocating a sense of decency in terms of women airing out their domestic grievances in the presence of international dignitaries and special guests. Indeed, for those accused, as well as those playing host to such guests, such protest would be utterly embarrassing.
On the other hand, seeing women silencing other women is all too reminiscent of our traditional history when women lived under the expectation that they had to be submissive, or seen and not heard, regardless of whether they were right or wrong.
But such “embarrassment” is not uncommon. After all, it is everyone's right to peacefully protest in an open forum as long as the rights of others are not violated. Even the great Bretton Wood institutions (the World Bank, etc.), the United Nations, as well as some of the most powerful governments in the world, have to endure their share of tens of thousands of protesters for many different reasons.
In any case, the Gender Ministry and other women leaders must realize that this will not be the last of such protest. There will always be someone or some group that feels disenchanted over a particular matter, be it a policy, program or personality of government. With President Sirleaf internationally recognized as a forerunner of the freedoms of information and expression in the sub-region, neither she nor anyone in her administration should be seen to be deviating from such a dignified position. Whether people are right or wrong, their right to peacefully protest is what makes democracy great. The women will be seen and heard, and nothing can stop them now.