From Learning to Legislation – AFELL Empowers Liberia’s Women
DREA KNUFKEN – WNN Features
In 2003, fourteen years of civil war left Liberia in shambles. 175,000 civilians had died. Nearly a third of the population, or one million citizens, were displaced, and 300,000 had fled the country.
Women were involved on all sides of the war from combat to slavery to rape. Physical violence often accompanied the rape. One six-county survey determined that roughly 7% of women had been raped during the war. Moreover, female minors were frequently targeted.
The last civil war ended four years ago. Still, rape and domestic violence continue to plague Liberia. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, underlines this in her statement from the 2006 International Symposium on Sexual Violence in Conflict and Beyond:
“In studies conducted in many of the counties of Liberia in 2004, a large percentage of women and girls reported that they were victims of various forms of violence and abuse. International organization reports show that a large percentage of these women were raped.”
Traditional culture stigmatizes rape, so victims often choose to stay silent, hiding what they see as a shameful and incriminating experience from their family and townspeople.
Until recently, Liberian government courts had no systems in place to assist rape survivors. Traditional culture around rape was one of shame for women and acceptance for men. But times are slowly changing.
A free and fair election propelled Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first female head of state, into power. Raised in Liberia and Harvard-educated, she began her long involvement with the Liberian government as its Assistant Minister of Finance during the 1970s. Later she went on to become an officer of the World Bank and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.
President Sirleaf went into exile after a military coup destabilized the country in 1980, but returned to Liberia to run for Senate five years later. This was the first of several less-than-voluntary round trips to and from her home: when Sirleaf was running for senate, she was briefly imprisoned for speaking out against Liberia’s leader of the time, Samuel Doe.
She described her capture and her own close encounter with rape recently before a March 14 joint meeting of Congress in the US saying, “In 1985, after challenging the military regime’s failure to register my political party, I was put in jail with several university students who also challenged the military rule. This House came to our rescue with a resolution threatening to cut off aid to the country unless all political prisoners were released. Months later, I was put in jail again, this time in a cell with 15 men. All of them were executed a few hours later. Only the intervention of a single soldier spared me from rape.”
This awareness of Liberian women’s rights is something the Association of Female Liberian Lawyers fights for every day. AFELL, an organization of female lawyers based in Monrovia, is on a mission to educate and represent women nationwide.
Founded during the first civil war (1989-1996), AFELL grew in prominence during the second conflict, which lasted from 1999 to 2003. In November 2000, with fighting still active, AFELL won a state patent to prosecute rape cases. Before this, Liberian law only allowed state lawyers to prosecute criminal cases. The patent represented a major success for AFELL.
This was the first in a series of victories. AFELL later collaborated with the government to increase penalties for rape. Resulting legislation led to more punitive rape laws that call for ten years’ to life imprisonment for rape.
After seeking the removal of President Charles Taylor from office in 1997, and again during a continuing wave of rising international charges against Taylor of serious corruptions, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won Liberia’s 2005 electoral and assumed leadership of the Unity Party where she trail-blazed forward becoming Africa’s first and only female head of state.
Taking her role seriously and with great honor she promised to “ensure that [women and girls] receive real protection from sexual…abuse” by providing “qualitative health services and necessary care” for victims.
In her recent March 15 statement before US legislative bodies, President Sirleaf said, “I stand before you today, as the first woman elected to lead an African nation, thanks to the grace of Almighty God; thanks to the people of west Africa and of Africa generally, who continued to give hope to my people.”
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