Few people are aware that a group of women -- calling themselves the Peace Women, dressed in colourful lappas (Liberian cloth), bright white T-shirts and white headscarves -- were instrumental in bringing peace to Liberia. Their story, which begins with the simple act of sitting along the streets for months under the hot sun or torrential rains of Liberia, led to the exile of alleged warlord Charles Taylor in 2003, now awaiting his verdict in The Hague.
In 1998, women from all tribes and religions in Liberia united in their common goal for an end to violence, and played an essential role in the decommissioning of young rebels to install peace and democracy in a war-torn country. The movement took place under the auspices of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). Today the work of these Peace Women continues. Here in Liberia, 75 women gather on a dusty football pitch to hold a 40-day fast and prayer meeting in solidarity for the women and children in neighbouring Côte D'Ivoire, where over 77,000 refugees have fled to Liberia.
WANEP group members participate in fast for peace. Photo: Liberia, Concern Worldwide
The conflict in Côte D'Ivoire is escalating rapidly: Official figures from UNHCR predict that 150,000 refugees are expected to arrive in the coming weeks, although the scale and uncertainty of the conflict indicate that these figures will rise significantly.
As Mama Kolubah Johnson, a member of the Peace Women group explained to me, the dangers for women in Côte D'Ivoire are well known to her group: "We have passed through the same problem here. Women and children suffer during war, women are raped, sometimes with their husband there. When men have guns they can say: 'My man! This woman not for you, yeah?' If the person has a gun your husband can't say anything."
Mama experienced the horrors of war when she was trapped in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, as the rebel factions surrounded the city. Her husband was brutally killed during the war -- oil was poured over him and he was burned alive while his wife was forced to watch. She was then left alone to care for her six-year-old daughter. It was then, that Mama Johnson decided to join the Peace Women's movement.
Throughout the conflict in Liberia, women were subjected to rape -- often gang rape -- in brutal acts where objects such as bananas, pieces of wood and metal, guns, hot water, mud, dried batteries and hot peppers were used. A post-war WHO survey reported that 90 percent of interviewees, irrespective of age, marital status and religion, said they were 'subjected to one or multiple acts of sexual abuse during the war or subsequently'. Seventy five percent of the 90 percent were 'raped or otherwise badly abused, many by gangs of men'.
Throughout Liberia women joined together -- Christians and Muslims from all tribes -- and united in their call for an immediate end to violence.
As I spoke, Mama, a Christian, was sitting next to her friend Miatta Sah, a Muslim. Miatta also lost her husband during the war, but due to the fighting it was not possible to make a grave or conduct a proper burial, a memory that still disturbs her today. Miatta talks of how proud her daughter is of her involvement with the Peace Women and her role in bringing peace to Liberia.
"We joined the group because during Taylor's time the war was closing in on us. Our sisters, mothers and daughters were behind the fighters and in front of the fighters. We knew what would happen if the soldiers continued. We stood up on the street and cried for peace. We begged them. We went to them and physically begged for peace."
The Accra Peace Accord was signed in 2003 and resulted in the exile of Charles Taylor. Liberia held peaceful and democratic elections in 2005, and Africa's first female head of state was elected, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The day after the President's inauguration, she passed a new rape law, which provides harsher penalties for the rape of women, boys and children under the age of 18. Mama Kolubah and her colleagues in WANEP traveled throughout Liberia to support the disarmament process. Mama described her ability to forgive the perpetrators of violence:
"Those who did it, I forgive them. They didn't know what they were doing, they were under drugs -- heavy drugs -- and they didn't know. I had a burning desire to talk to them. I was assigned to Kakata to convince them to disarm, I went there. They cursed us, they cursed us and we begged them. It was when I touched his arm and asked him to leave the gun, I told him it was finished and it was time to leave the gun, and he put it down. They all cursed us but we kept begging."
Unfortunately, gender-based violence did not end with the war. The Minister for Gender and Development highlights this in her preface to the National Plan of Action on Gender Based Violence, stating that although the conflict has ended, Liberian women and girls are still experiencing violence in all of its manifestations. Rape is the second most reported violent crime in Liberia and it is expected that actual incidence is much higher than reported.
"Rape is happening one-on-one now. They are raping little children aged 8 or 9 years. When their mothers are out getting food or finding means to pay for their education, the older men feel that the mother is not around so they catch the little girls."
In over half (55 percent) of gender based violence cases reported between January 2009 and September 2010, the survivors were fourteen years old or younger. The Ministry of Gender and Development is working closely with women's groups, such as WANEP and the Rural Women's Association, to address violence against women and children, and to engage men and boys in social change.
Louise Yarsiah leads the women of WANEP in song in Liberia. Photo: Jenny Hobbs, Concern Worldwide
Humanitarian organization Concern has been working in Liberia for fifteen years and has prioritized addressing Gender Based Violence through its livelihoods, HIV and AIDS, Water, Sanitation and Health (WaSH) and Education programs. Children are in danger of sexual exploitation and abuse on the way to and from school, and more shockingly, when they are attending school. Our work supports 30 rural primary schools in Grand Bassa County, south of Monrovia where only 28 percent of primary school-aged children were enrolled in school in 2009.
Our education program draws on the strength the Peace Women demonstrate in challenging violence in Liberia. We work with the Ministry of Gender and Development to provide leadership training for women in rural communities and educate community members on child rights, women's rights and the importance of protecting children from gender-based violence at school and in their communities.
To mark the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, Concern is working in collaboration with WIPNET (Women in Peace-Building Network), the Liberian branch of WANEP, to provide training to 120 rural women in Grand Bassa County on gender equality and gender-based violence.
The training and awareness-raising campaign will take place on March 7 and 8 in six rural communities, bringing together young women who have children of school-going age.
As Mama Kolubah Johnson explains, it is essential that girls are educated to become the future leaders of Liberia.
"In the rural areas, as soon as someone reaches 16 years, the community will encourage them to get married. As soon as they are old enough to cut palm and make oil to sell, they are needed to feed their families. The parents have a role to play. I took care of my own grandchild so my daughter could continue with her education. Now she is in college studying to become an accountant."