LIBERIA: Women in Retrospect 2011

Friday, January 6, 2012
Daily Observer
Western Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security
Human Rights

Before we finally close the chapter on 2011, flipping a fresh page for a new beginning in 2012, let's not forget that the unresolved issues of 2011 and other past years are still in need of solutions.

In this first week of the New Year, we want to highlight that the socio-political and economic advancement of Liberian women remains an ongoing struggle, claiming the attention of advocates on a daily basis. However, here's a look back at a breathless twelve months (2011) that saw ordinary women doing extraordinary things to improve their lives; the women's world pushing for gender democracy. Women & Family takes a reflective look at an eventful year in news. Below are highlights of key issues underscored in 2011:

Women's Health

From January through April, 2011, the focus of Women & Family was glued to women's health: sexual, reproductive and mental health of women – the physical and psychological effects of rape. A study aimed at getting an understanding of the challenges faced by war-affected women when it comes to reintegration into local communities was undertaken by Women & Family in Monrovia.

The research was mainly centered on a ‘forgotten' group of women residing in a large abandoned refugee camp in the VOA neighborhood of Brewerville, a suburb of Monrovia. The study found out that these victims of endemic sexual violence were also mutilated with guns and other weapons during the war, exposing them to HIV.

They were abused in every imaginable way, which subjected them to flashbacks and trauma even when the guns were no longer firing. In most cases, the brutality with which these inhumane acts were carried out led to a complete damage of some of the women's reproductive organs. In the aftermath, these women were abandoned by their husbands because they could longer bring forth a child. Others were excluded from the public scene because they had fistula; making the issue of reintegration/acceptability by their communities of origin a very difficult experience. This also made the psychological effect of their condition even more draining because it further subjected them to secondary victimization.
However, in an effort to address reproductive health and rights challenges faced by Liberian women, the government of Liberia on March 8, 2011, launched the National Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) Policy and the Road Map for Accelerating the Reduction of Maternal Mortality & Newborn Morbidity in Liberia (2011-2015). Both policies called for the strengthening of the health sector by increasing resource allocation to improve access to SRH services. The policies also sought to ensure that every Liberian enjoys sexual and reproductive health of the highest quality and has the opportunity to fully exercise his or her sexual and reproductive rights. Their mission is to create an enabling environment for reducing morbidity and mortality related to sexual and reproductive conditions.

At the same time, on March 12, 2011, a report capturing activities of a medical intervention, which focused on sexual, reproductive and mental health of women war survivors in two of Liberia's 15 counties was launched in Monrovia.

The report, “Touching the Unreached”, by Isis-WICCE, a Ugandan-based women's organization, and its local partners, gave a clear picture of the intervention which benefited more than 1,500 persons in both counties. It may be recalled that a research conducted in 2008 by Isis-WICCE, in four of Liberia's 15 counties, including Lofa, Maryland, Grand Kru and Bong, established that thousands of rural women were living in terrible conditions owing to brutal treatments perpetrated against them during the Liberian war that spanned over a decade.

Findings of that study showed that these women war survivors suffered from chronic gynecological and reproductive health complications as a result of gang and multiple rapes. The brutality with which these rapes were carried out left 22.1% of respondents with infertility problems, 37.1% with chronic abdominal pain, 21.6% with fistula, and others with perennial tears, genital prolapses and other sexually related dysfunctions.

The provision of medical treatment for the survivors of war trauma and those with reproductive health problems, as a component of their rehabilitation and a need to integrate psychological services within primary mental maternal health service of Liberia were highly recommended at the close of that research. In partial fulfillment of this recommendation, in 2009, Isis-WICCE undertook a short-term medical intervention in Maryland and Grand Kru counties. The aim was to provide specialized reproductive, mental, surgical and medical health care to women war survivors.

Meanwhile, on April 8, 2011, the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its 2010 Report on Liberia; revealing that the Liberian rape law was not effectively enforced. It may be recalled that upon ascending to the Liberian presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf promised that no ‘rapists' would go unpunished during her tenure. Though the report admitted that the 2006 rape law legally defined rape, it also put it bluntly that the government did not always effectively enforce the law.
Under the 2006 rape law, rape convicts can be sentenced to between seven years to life imprisonment, depending on the gravity of the crime. Any accused will not be granted bill under the law. The maximum sentence for first-degree rape is life imprisonment and 10 years for second-degree rape. Accused first-degree rapists are not eligible for bail. According to the report, the rape law does not specifically criminalize spousal rape. It also stated that the though law prohibits domestic violence; it also remained a widespread problem.


On June 18, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf received the 2011 African Gender Award in recognition of her gender agenda and highly visible accomplishments in areas of women's presence in the political and judicial domains, as well as the provision of free education for the children of impoverished Liberian women. The Selection Committee also cited the establishment of a market women's fund and the implementation of international conventions for the protection of the rights of women, such as the UN Resolution 1325, as some of President Johnson Sirleaf's accomplishments, qualifying her for the prestigious Award.

Hundreds of eminent women from across the African continent, during the 4th African Gender Award ceremony, converged at the Meridien President Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, to discuss their stake in the issue of political participation which has, in recent years, become a core issue in the region's strategic development. The International Conference on Parity was aimed at exchanging and networking over parity concepts and stakes related to its adoption and enforcement.

In an exclusive interview with the President prior to her receiving the Award, the Liberian leader told Women & Family that it wouldn't be her wish to see a return of African presidency [including Liberia's] exclusively to men. According to her, she is grooming some women leaders in the Liberian circle to step in her footprints after she leaves office.

In a related development, several forward-thinking leaders of the women's world interviewed by Women & Family on June 29, 2011, said although tremendous strides had been made with regard to gender parity, more still needed to be done. But in May 2010, a new bill seeking to ensure that gender parity measures are being enforced across all sectors of the Liberian society landed on the floor of the Liberian Senate. It was debated upon and subsequently dunked into the dustbin. However, crafters of the bill did not seem deterred by this development. They were still of the conviction that things would work out once the bill was properly cleaned up to make it less ambitious.
For Liberian women, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Gender Equity Bill would be a groundbreaking piece of legislation that would ensure that challenges that women face in the country are addressed. For instance, the Establishment Coordinator of the Angie Brooks Center, Counselor Yvette Chesson-Wureh, held the view that the Bill is an affirmative action.


In another development, on August 3, 2011, an Associate Professor of English at the Penn State University (USA) visited Liberia to continue a research on Liberian Women Trauma Stories started by her in 2008. Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley had been collecting and documenting stories of trauma experienced by women who were subjected to abuse during the country's civil war.
The research had spanned five years and the aim was to put together a written narrative of these stories. Women from all walks of the Liberian society were consulted, including those in refugee camps (Buduburam Refugee Camp, Ghana) and others in the Diaspora, especially in the United States. Interestingly, the stories she had been hearing were the same stories of torture and rape told by women during the country's healing (Truth and Reconciliation) process.

Single Parenthood

Our theme for the month of September was single parenthood, inspired by majority of the Ivorian refugees – who were single mothers – self-settled in communities across Nimba and Grand Gedeh Counties to escape the fighting in their homeland. At the time, official UNHCR data showed that Nimba was hosting over 51,099 influx-emergency registered and 43,853 individually registered Ivorian refugees. Of that figure, 11,949 households had been recorded with 53% of those households being headed by females. In Grand Gedeh, there were about 61,807 influx-emergency registered and 1,422 individually registered refugees. Of that figure, there were 20,085 households with 54% also headed by females.

Each of these single mothers had a completely different story to tell. However, one thing remained unique to them all: they were single moms because they had lost their husbands in the Ivorian turmoil. It is no secret that after a separation, divorce, widowhood or simply by a tough choice, more and more women are becoming solo moms, bringing up their children alone. In normal circumstances, parents (both fathers and mothers) should be there to complement each other for the upkeep of the family.

However, single moms have got no choice but to assume the responsibility as both father and mother, ensuring the provision of all the love and support the kids need to survive. And in a typical African context, being a single mother is not only limited to supporting four or more of her own offspring; it also [most likely] involves catering to the basic needs of children of relatives, war orphans, or children otherwise separated from their families.

The Nobel Peace Prize

Then came, on October 7, 2011, the biggest news ever, of indeed global proportions: the recognition of two outstanding Liberian women for the Nobel Peace Prize. One of them was first democratically-elected female President of an African country, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The other was Liberia's Leymah Gbowee. A third woman so recognized was from the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, Tawakkul Karman. The three were honored for their “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace building work.”

Reminiscing on the those rough days of the struggle to get the feuding warlords to end their hostilities, Ms. Gbowee, in an interview with Women & Family, could only say ‘thank you' to the women who demonstrated their confidence in her by daring the orders of the day to step out into the field to pray for peace and stability.
For her part, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told Women & Family that she paid the price for the award, having fought for the rights of Liberians and democracy in this country for over three decades.

The winning of the Nobel Prize by these daughters of the soil suddenly made Liberia a ‘hot cake' on the international scene. Norway Conservative Party Leader, Erna Solberg, said in a November 8 interview with Women & Family, that she observed that few years back, Liberia was easily described as a “failed state” because it was hugely plunged into decades of civil strife. “But now, Liberia has taken an irreversible path to recovery in all spheres,” she said.

Ms. Solberg then disclosed that five Norwegian women parliamentarians were the brains behind President Johnson Sirleaf's nomination for the Peace Prize.