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DREA KNUFKEN – WNN Features

Liberian women activists

Liberia’s Courageous Women

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.”

Portrait of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Portrait of Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Image: Aktivioslo

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s words of advocacy for the people of Liberia continued as she spoke from her own experience, “In the campaign months, I traveled to every corner of our country. I trudged through mud in high boots, where roads did not exist or had deteriorated past repair. I surveyed ruined hospitals and collapsed clinics. I held meetings by candlelight, because there is no electricity anywhere – including the capital – except from private generators. I was forced to drink water from creeks and un-sanitized wells all of which made me vulnerable to the diseases from which so many of our people die daily.

I came face to face with the human devastation of war, which killed a quarter of a million of our three million people and displaced most of the rest. Hundreds of thousands escaped across borders. More – who could not – fled into the bush, constantly running from one militia or another, often surviving by eating rodents and wild plants that made them sick and even killed them.

Our precious children died of malaria, parasites and malnourishments. Our boys, full of potential, were forced to be child soldiers, to kill or be killed. Our girls, capable of being anything they could imagine, were made into sex slaves, gang-raped by men with guns, made mothers while they were still children themselves.

But listening to the hopes and dreams of our people, I recall the words of a Mozambican poet who said, ‘Our dream has the size of freedom.’ My people, like your people, believe deeply in freedom – and, in their dreams, they reach for the heavens.

I represent those dreams. I represent their hope and their aspirations. I ran for president because I am determined to see good governance in Liberia in my lifetime. But I also ran because I am the mother of four, and I wanted to see our children smile again.

Already, I am seeing those smiles. For even after everything they have endured, the people of Liberia have faith in new beginnings. They are counting on me and my administration to create the conditions that will guarantee the realization of their dreams.

All the children I meet – when I ask what they want most – say, ‘I want to learn.’ ‘I want to go to school.’ ‘I want an education.’ We must not betray their trust. Young adults, who have been called our lost generation, do not consider themselves lost. They, too, aspire to learn and to serve their families and their communities. We must not betray their trust.

Women, my strong constituency, tell me that they want the same chances that men have. They want to be literate. They want their work recognized. They want protection against rape. They want clean water that won’t sicken and kill their children. We must not betray their trust.”

Another of AFELL’s battlegrounds is inheritance laws. Customary marriages, which are allowed under Liberian law, make a wife the property of her husband. Widows, therefore, have no inheritance rights to their husbands’ property. The women of AFELL are currently campaigning for enforcement of women’s inheritance rights.

AFELL’s most important bricks-and-mortar establishment is its legal aid clinic. Located in Monrovia, the clinic provides complimentary legal services to victims of rape and gender violence. Hundreds of community members of all ages, both men and women, come to learn about rape law and consult with legal experts. It’s a true community endeavor, often with lines running out the door.

As a result, women are no longer silent like they used to be. Lois Bruthus, president of AFELL, states that her organization receives up to six reports of rape a day. Alone, these numbers are frightful. When seen in light of the situation a few years ago, when rape was barely ever reported, and rapists let off practically without punishment, they’re encouraging.

As AFELL continues its battles to educate the public, illegalize marital rape and defend victims of rape and sexual violence, they inspire women worldwide with their strength, perseverance and successes in one of the planet’s most war-torn countries.

[YouTube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3jgEcbVuQs&rel=0]

 

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s shares her vision for a New Liberia. This video has been produced by Foreign ExchangeTV with Fareed Zakaria.
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For more information go to:

WITC – Women’s International Tribune Center
Women Talk Peace – Radio Productions -
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 / Liberia

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Sources for this article include UN.org, WomenWarPeace.org, Forced Migration Review – Vol. 27, AllAfrica.com, US Dept. of State, YouTube and UNFPA.org – 2006 International Symposium on Sexual-Violence-In-Conflict and Beyond.
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©WNN – Women News Network 2007