Promoting Gender Equality in Postconflict Liberia: Challenges and Prospects
Author: Horace P. Nagbe
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 05/05/2010
A genuine collaboration between women and men in a given family, community and/or society is significantly demanding, however this collaboration enhances sustainable development for the benefit of all, as they are all endowed with something spectacularly and complimentarily indispensable. However, the contrary will prove otherwise. For centuries unimagined, women have born the awfulness of a societal construction, whose aftermath is describable in many forms, including, but not limited to: rape; wife-bartering; denial of economic opportunities; exclusion from family, community and/or societal decision-making processes; etc. Correctly diagnosed, all of those refer to and are based on inequality between women and men (gender inequality), something that must be adequately addressed. Thus, gender inequality is an evidential result of a social-cultural architectural design of roles and responsibilities for women in society, on the basis of their sex, something that has since created asymmetry in terms of the distribution of opportunities and privileges, which automatically defines power and its possessor. This socially arranged and barbarically inhumane condition is enforced by politics. Thus, women are highly bamboozled.
Ethically, such invention is a gross rupture of their basic and inherent human rights and thus threatens the overall peace and development of the general society. Women’s human rights were never esteemed and their works never distinguished and valued, until the progression of the first (19th – 20th centuries), second (1960s – 1980s) and third (1990s) waves of feminism, a revolutionarily advocatory movement for the independence of women. This collective movement, to some extent, fomented some level of development relative to the approbation of women’s human rights, particularly their embodiment in the public/political orbs, as well as the consciousness and endorsement of their works. The historic inequality, in my opinion, owes its authoritative justification to the evolution of humanity and its ‘man-made’ socio-cultural and traditional belief systems, which are fortified in the ancient Greek cultures and traditions. In the ancient Greek cultures and traditions, women were given limited freedom, especially outside the home. They were only allowed to attend weddings, funerals and ‘some’ religious festivals, and only permitted to visit female friends for a brief period. These cultural and traditional practices have influenced many modern day cultural and traditional beliefs and practices, and therefore, pose major challenges in the propagation of equality between women and men, especially in Liberia.
In the Liberian society, women and girls bore the brunt of almost two decades of civil war, during which time their human rights, especially sexual rights were grossly violated. However, during the pre-conflict epoch of the country, this thesis (gender inequality) was never propagated, as in its post-conflict era, despite its actualization based on cultures and traditions. In this light, it is expedient to acknowledge the undaunted efforts of the many women´s organizations and media houses, for their roles in unearthing this demonic behavior of humanity. Gender equality in the current Liberia society has since become a need, owing to the positively remarkable role played and continuing to be played by women in the context of peacebuilding and post-conflict national recovery and development processes.
Background of Gender Inequalities in Post-Conflict Liberia
As a politic of power, ignited by cultures and traditions on the one hand, and enforced by (informal and formal) political institutions on the other, inequalities between men and women have widened over the centuries, until the emergence of the feminist movement in the 19th century. This first wave of feminism dealt basically with two major issues of inequalities: suffrage and cultural inequalities. Defined as the right to vote, guaranteed by law, suffrage served as a major form of discrimination against women and an affront to their livelihood in the United States, Europe, Australia, Africa and other parts of the world, including Liberia, with reference to their disempowerment.
Gender inequality, as a concept, is not actually new in the Liberian society, but became famously discerned during and following two decades of violence, which devastated all fabrics of the society. In a nutshell, it evolved and became prevalent since the late 1990s. However, as stated, the act was latently demonstrated during the pre-conflict epoch, following the foundation (1821) and independence (1847) of the country. During such times, women were discriminated against, culturally and traditionally, on the basis of their sex. Men were considered wise, intelligent, charismatic, brave, intellectual, decisive and physically stronger than women; some of the many reasons why the first constitution did not address women´s specific issues, and henceforth denied them of their voting rights until 1946. Also, from the customary and traditional legal perspectives, the rights of women were meddled, in that they were given in marriage as ‘properties’ of men, evidenced by the payment of dowry and a refund thereof in the case of divorce, whether by the man or woman, though it still happens in some cultures.
During the conflict in Liberia however, inequalities between women and men assumed a different and diabolical posture (sexual violence or rape), as females were openly abducted as sex slaves and taken for objects of rape. Also, many of them were maimed and killed, especially those that insisted to protect their sexuality by refusing to be humiliated in such a manner. In many cases, those that could not further resist were impregnated and forbidden to carry out abortion, followed by many other consequences such as reproductive health complications, abdominal pain, HIV/AIDS, ostracism by the community and family members, abandonment by fathers of the children and suicide. As findings from a situation analysis conducted by Isis-Women´s International Cross Cultural Exchange on the health consequences of the war on females in four of the fifteen political subdivisions of the country show, both women and men suffered physical, psychological and sexual torture during the war; however, most women reported psychological torture, sexual violence and torture, while men reported physical torture.
Culturally, Liberian women were, and in some cases, continue to be restrained from working outside the home (in public), but instead work in agricultural (farming) sectors, so as to remain in the town to cater for the households whilst the men do whatever they want. Such care for the household includes child-bearing and rearing, and tending to the welfare and wellbeing of those very spouses. Also, the culture provided that women do not speak in the gathering of elders (made up of only men), as they had nothing better to offer for the good of the community and general society. The stereotypes against women became eminently prevalent, so much that the men made almost all of the decisions, which women had to obey, whether in their interest or not. With all this in mind, and because they could not to work in the public (political) sectors of the society, women were denied the opportunity and privilege of formal education and economic empowerment, something that serves as the basis for enhancing equality. Alternatively and politically motivated, women were provided informal education through the ‘Sande School’, where they learned how to farm, cultivate traditional medicine and come to recognize their ‘values as females.’ In such schools, they were also trained for marriage, domestic life, and economic pursuits through agricultural engagement – a form of modern slavery, in my view. After graduation from the ‘Sande School’, they are proposed to by many men for marriage, but await the choice and decision of the families through the fathers.
As stated before, women were not economically empowered, though they were major contributors towards financial incomes in the home through their engagement with agricultural (farming) activities, as is one of the major sources of economic development in the country. As part of the overall inequality between men and women in pre-conflict Liberia, women’s work in the household and that of the markets (economic) were never distinguished or valued, neither were they rewarded for such heavily-loaded tasks. Women did more work than men with regards to the household, even in-light of its economic life. As Sirianmi and Negrey rightly pointed out, “women do more household work than men, women’s market work is undervalued, and the greatest rewards for market work accrue to men.”
In the post-conflict era however, these acts are prevalent and alarming in most rural cultural settings, despite progressive advocacy by women and civil society organizations (W/CSOs), national and international non-governmental organizations (N/INGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and the Ministry of Gender and Development (MoGD). To an extent, inequalities are being minimized in urban areas, but are increasing in some parts, evidenced by the alarming rate of rape, wife-bartering, etc. All these are predicated on the entrenched culture of patriarchy, which is even being enforced by some women, evidenced by the act of female genital mutilation (FGM). Within some families, especially in the case of single female-headed households, such practices such as the giving female children into forced marriages are carried out by women, as a transfer of patriarchal norms.
Gender inequalities in the Liberian context, as well as others, are evident within the power relations socially constructed by patriarchy, with the intent of perpetuating control over women, in which the family plays a unique role. According to radical feminism as quoted by Green, based on evidence in the Liberian society, the family is the institution most centrally cardinal to patriarchy because of its indoctrination of women and men via psychosocial conditioning and socialization into gender roles, which provides the foundation for the social construction of sexuality. In such families, gender roles are taught and informingly emphasized.
In short, inequalities between women and men in the Liberian society, as in many others, are based on socially constructed roles, influenced by cultures and tradition and enforced by male-dominant political institutions. However, the epoch of the emancipation of women has arrived with the presence of female leadership of the country, especially a female who has pledged her entire term to engendering equality between women and men, realizing the significance and benefits thereof. Thus, she has made countless efforts including the appointment of many women into major government functionaries, the economic empowerment of women in agricultural areas, the promotion of female education through a free and compulsory primary educational system, the signing into law of a rape bill and subsequent establishment of a special court to prosecute rape cases, and the empowerment of the Ministry of Gender and Development and many women´s organizations through the Women´s NGO Secretariat (WONGOSOL). Thus, inequalities are accordingly being minimized though her presence in the patriarchal setting.
Economic Development in Liberia, the Role of Women and its Impact on Women
This topic considerably focuses on the economic development of Liberia, from its pre-conflict era to its conflict and post-conflict periods, as well as the role of women and the impact of such development on them. Liberia is considerably rich in natural resources, but with an impoverished majority of its population, of which most are women. Prior to the Liberian Civil War, the Liberian economy could barely cater for its citizens, though it depended to some large extent on agricultural products (goats, pigs, cattle and rice) among many others, with women as the major producers. Foreign trade, such as the export of iron ore, rubber and timber, could have enhanced the wellbeing of the general citizenry including women, but instead primarily benefited the Americo-Liberian elite, especially men. Henceforth, the country suffered an economic crisis in terms of poverty, despite a 40% GDP, and in spite of the applied efforts of women to embellish the living standard of their various households and perhaps adversely improve the economy.
The absence of economic development in pre-conflict Liberia is largely dependent on many limitations, such as an inadequate educational system, insufficient number of trained technicians, limited transportation and communication facilities, high mortality rates due to tropical diseases such as malaria and yaws, lack of proper diet among a great multitude of people and tribal resistance to new ideologies. Though there are many limitations, in my opinion, the lack of trained technicians, which is a result of the lack of an adequate educational system, plays a major role in the poor economic development. Of all these, women were never counted, based on cultural barricades, as they were not given the opportunity and privilege to be formally educated.
According to the 1864 Act of the Liberian Constitution, however, trade between foreign investors and the indigenous was restricted, and the indigenous, which comprised 95% of the population, most of whom were women, survived on subsistence farming, with the women at the forefront, and the low income work of foreign concessions (i.e. Firestone Rubber Plantation) dominated by men. During such a situation, women practically became heavily burdened as breadwinners of families, whilst their efforts were not recognized and valued, neither were they rewarded. This is based on the socio-cultural construction of gender roles, which saw men as heads and breadwinners for the families and therefore accrued all major rewards. Even now, such practices continue in most cultures of post-conflict Liberia.
During the civil crisis, the economy of Liberia was shattered by massive corruption and exploitation, especially in its market-based economy, where women were dominant. Most homes meanwhile survived the remnants of this economy, considerate of lack of employment opportunities in the ‘formal economy (of men)’, which was badly devastated. During the crisis, women risked their lives for the survival of their families and households by running through stray bullets to fetch food for the families, whilst the men were home in fear of being killed. In the process however, many women lost their lives! Since 1999, following the first postwar “democratic elections” and even now, Liberia is considered one of the world’s poorest nations. The illiteracy rate is estimated to be 75%, of which over 50% are women. Yet, women continue to play a major role in the economic development of Liberia.
Following the Civil War, economic development in Liberia became a major challenge for the government and people, as everything was shattered including the economy; though it was barely developed prior to the crisis because of massive corruption by government officials (men) and the exploitation of its people, especially women. Even so, corruption was still hovering over the new government. Upon the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra and the subsequent assumption of office in 2006, the government drafted a document called, “lift Liberia” or the “poverty reduction strategy,” which attracted donors and investors, as well as international institutions and partners including the World Bank, IMF, USAID, FAO, etc., with numerous economic development and capacity-building programs (including micro-finance and skills training). These efforts were aimed at empowering the war-ravaged people of Liberia and developing their economy and country, but with an emphasis on women, according to the Millennium Development Goal number three, which stresses gender equality and the empowerment of women.
On the contrary, however, those program activities did not actually benefit women, giving precedence to cultural and traditional politics, which continue to enforce gender disparities and the disempowerment of women. For example, relative to the Grameen Bank in Bangledesh and other nations, there are many microfinance institutions in the post-conflict Liberian society. However, there are policy requirements in obtaining such credit, two of which create challenges for women: a woman must be present with her husband or fiancé, and display assets that correspond with the requested amount. However, in the case of men, the major requirement is only the display of assets equivalent to or more than the requested loans. Such policy is discriminatory and enforces patriarchy. Besides, in most cultures, the capital and profits generated from transactions of the women are controlled by men. With women forming the majority of the impoverished population of the country, it is unnecessary to have such programs and policies which embellish gender inequalities. Also, much assessment is required in-light of the conditions and needs of the beneficiaries, especially women, before starting such unique programmes. Addressing such policy issues, I concur with Susan Himmelweit´s argument, which provides that the basic impact of any policy in such cases is equity, intended to create more balanced outcomes between men and women, allowing for the understanding and visibility of different effects of policies on both of them. Contrarily however, all intent of equity seems to vanish in the thin air of inequality, at the greatest expense of women.
Concerning the argument that micro-finance programs aim at improving the economic situation of women and as well lead to gender equality, I would like to mention that it often does not work in many societies, especially culturally and traditionally entrenched societies, in the pretext of patriarchy. For example, as mentioned above, such goals are yet to be achieved. On the other hand, the living standards of some women are embellished and their families are well taken care of; notwithstanding, it is often in the case of single-parenthood (with the mother) families. For example, a lady named Martha in Liberia, upon benefiting from a UNDP microfinance programme, is now able to care for her children by paying their school tuition and buying uniforms, and as well catering for their health. This is one of the few successes of microfinance programmes in post-conflict Liberia, as a vast majority of such programmes have policies that embellish patriarchy. Henceforth, the impacts of economic development in-light microfinance programmes and skills training have yet to achieve MDG number three, whilst 2015 draws near, women are still marginalized and denied the opportunities of equitability.
Strategies to Promote Gender Equality and Economic Development in Post-Conflict Liberia: Challenges and Prospects
While discussing this topic, I would like to account for current efforts in place to promote gender equalities in post-conflict Liberia, as well as the weakness and challenges of such efforts. First and foremost, I will mention the undaunted work done by women during the war (1999-2003), especially the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET). This organization, along with almost 80% of the Liberian women, played a major role in engendering the current peace being enjoyed, in spite of its fragility. Working under the coordination of Ms. Leymah Roberta Gbowee and supported by prominent women and organizations, including the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding and the United Nations Population Fund, amongst others, prayed the devil back to hell, when they faced head-on the most feared, former president Charles Taylor. As a result of their bravery, intelligence, intellectualism and strength, the Liberian nation and its people are walking the streets of Liberia peacefully. As a final result, the country now has the first democratically-elected female president of Africa, and the political (public) sphere of the country is being controlled by a woman, as a partial fulfillment of the Security Council Resolution 1325. In many cases, this would serve as a perfect beginning point to address most gender inequality issues, in an attempt to enhance gender equalities by 2015, at which the government is definitely working.
Hence, in an effort to promote gender equality and empower women, as mentioned above, the government has developed and strengthened the Ministry of Gender and Development, and ensured the enactment of a rape law (2006), which prohibits sexual violence in all its forms (a form of inequality that has been socio-culturally engendered), followed by the establishment of a special court to prosecute perpetrators. Also, there are more than eighty women advocacy groups encouraged to openly speak against any form of inequalities, including the most barbaric and prevalently alarming act of sexual violence (rape), which is even being committed against children around twenty-one months. Also, an umbrella women´s organization called Women NGO Secretariat, which coordinates the activities of over 75 women organizations and receiving support from the government and international partners and donors was created. These women´s organizations, through the Women NGO Secretariat (WONGOSOL) and Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) were very instrumental in ensuring the legislation of the rape law in 2006.
Most importantly, the presence and work of international institutions like UNFPA, OX-FAM, GBV programme, IRC, Amnesty International and UNMIL, coupled with the almost 150 civil society organizations, played significant roles in the process as well. For example, UNFPA has sponsored and continues to sponsor many gender equality-enhancement programmes. These and many other groupings are very vocal and instrumental in the pursuit of gender equalities in accordance with the convention and protocols of CEDAW.
However, these strategies and processes, especially the Liberian-owned processes, have some weaknesses, which allow for their enlacement with series of challenges. To outline some of the weaknesses, there are less and almost no educationally-motivated programmes for female employees and government officials in the country, and the free and compulsory primary education programme, which targets female children is yet to be fully supported. That is, the government has failed to provide adequate support to its institutions, through which such programmes are being implemented; the Ministry of Education, for example, is plagued by a high rate of corruption. Another weakness and challenge is the wave of massive corruption within the public sectors, of which more than two cabinet ministers, including former Minister of Information, Dr. Lawrence Bropleh, and former Justice Minister Philip Banks are being prosecuted, while others are dismissed.
Also, the lack of adequate educational awareness programmes in the rural areas is another challenge. These programmes are needed in the areas where there are more girls out of school who are only catering to farming activities and giving birth to lots of children without protection and proper care. Furthermore, these areas feature a high infant mortality rate, which results in 235 deaths per 1,000 live births, making Liberia the fifth highest in the world. Another weakness is the under-education of most magistrates of courts, with only five percent who went to law school. Finally, for the biggest weaknesses, there are more female children being commercialized either by their biological or foster parents without formal education, knowing that the education of female children is a major way to empower women and enhance gender equality.
Further challenges include the Liberian constitution or statutory laws, which are characterized by so many gender-neutral terms, thus giving less or no attention to the specific issues of women. Most importantly are the customary and traditional (unwritten) laws, which are heavily applied in the rural areas, of course where cultural norms and traditions are dominant. Moreover, the public/statutory recognition of the informal economy is very cardinal to the process; as such economy is comprised mainly of women and girls who are instrumental to the overall economic development of the country, but are being devalued. This economy, as well as the empowerment of women, has yet to be recognized, especially in the rural areas, which seems to be a great challenge. Finally, the lack of rehabilitation and/or counseling centers for both perpetrators and victims of sexual violence, the lack of awareness against female genital mutilation, and the inadequacy of legislation to deter some of those gruesome acts against women, are all prevalent and defraud women on the highest level and pose serious challenges to enhancing gender equality. In my opinion, one of the many reasons for such continual acts of inequalities, which are especially perpetrated by men, are because of the foreseen prospects thereof, which would engender equality, as women would be empowered and independent of the evil tenets of patriarchy.
Conclusion and Recommendations
To conclude, the economic development, national recovery and overall development of post-conflict Liberia depends largely on the emancipation of women, from every form of discrimination and marginalization. Further, their empowerment, which manifests in gender equalities, needs to be adequately addressed in terms of resolved efforts, especially by the government including all three branches (legislative, executive and judicial). Also, the educational and economic empowerment of women seems to be the biggest steps in the way. Following almost two decades of devastation, the overall recovery process of the oldest African country cannot be overestimated; the technocrats and strategists in my opinion are women, making reference to their undaunted efforts in bringing the country to where it is now.
Since the foundation and independence of Liberia as a nation, and even now, women have suffered and continue to suffer from marginalization and discrimination, as a result of the socially-constructed gender roles, which have rendered them less-human and have made them susceptible to all manners of inhumane acts (i.e. sexual violence, rape, female genital mutilation, physical violence, denial of educational opportunities and privileges, etc.). Of course, during the civil conflict, women and girls bore the brunt, as they were used as sex slaves and forced into human trafficking. Similarly, in the post-conflict Liberian society, it’s obvious that such acts are being repeated, though there are no armed conflicts. In my opinion, the government seems to be carefree about the role of women, relative to peace and economic development. The women of Liberia played and continue to play major roles in its economic, social and political development.
The need for programmes to educate and develop rural women and girls, most of whom sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for the current state of Liberia, need to be given some form of empowerment. Socio-cultural practices, which engender inequalities between men and women, need to be unearthed and addressed to the fullest, without fear or favor. With the current wave of development, in the context of women’s participation and involvement, I am of the conviction that with the design and implementation of more programme activities, there will be greater improvement, hence, gender equality will be ensured.
Therefore, in order to adequately address such weaknesses and challenges, and thus enhancing gender equality and the economic empowerment of women in the post-conflict Liberian society, the following need to be given consideration:
- Massive awareness of existing gender inequalities and the hazards attached, as well as the development of adequate and proper mechanisms to address the issues.
- Provide adequate attention and support to the free and compulsory primary education programme, which will go a very long way in addressing inequalities and thus enhance gender equality in Liberia, after 10-15 years or more.
- Provide adequate funding to the health care of pregnant mothers, in order to address the issue of infant mortality rates.
- Create massive public education and awareness efforts on the significance of education, contrary to the increased pregnancy and birth rate of girls under 16 years, as is prevalent in the rural and urban areas as well, by encouraging the use of condoms and/or contraceptives.
- Ensure the rehabilitation and/or counseling of perpetrators and victims of sexual violence and rape, so as to avoid reoccurrences and as well address the issue of guilt and stigma, which impede progressive thoughts and development in its victims, most of whom are women and girls.
- Ensure that judges prosecuting criminal cases, especially rape, are well schooled and educated in the area of law and gender before assuming such titles as judges.
- Ensure the indiscriminate and timely dispensation of justice to all, regardless of status and backgrounds, especially on the cases of rape.
- Institute an educationally-motivated programme to enlist unqualified (female) government officials and employees, for efficiency and proficiency on the job.
- Provide scholarships to deserving female students for higher education in and out of the country, irrespective of any form of connection with the authorities.
- Work with microfinance/micro-credit institutions to ensure the reformation of their various policies that enforce gender-stereotypes and inequalities, whether national or international.
- Encourage microfinance institutions to conduct proper assessments, relative to the specific needs of women, before the implementation of such programmes.
- Provide public/statutory recognition for the market economy, in which women are dominant.
- Encourage intra/inter-university intellectual activities, specifically with the involvement of females, in order to build and widen their intellectual horizons for future political discourses, as a way of enhancing their involvement and participation into politics and government.
- Encourage the training of lawyers, judges, magistrates and advocates in the area of gender and peacebuilding, giving the widespread gender inequalities, which pose serious threats to post-conflict peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts.
- Initiate and implement more women-targeted programme activities, in order to promote gender equality at a very high-speed.
Bio: Horace P. Nagbe is a Liberian and theologian with a B.S. in Sacred Theology from United Methodist University. He was a former student activist and leader with the Liberia National Student Union and the West Africa Student Union. Nagabe has also been a Sunday School teacher and Minister of the Gospel, the Executive Director of Youth in Action for Sustainable Peace, Development and Social Integration in Liberia, a board member of the Liberian Youth and Adolescent Network and the Kollah Foundation Institute. Further, he was a former researcher and Monitoring Officer for UNOPS/Interpeace, Liberia and the former Chief Administrator for the Christiana Bedell Preparatory School. Nagbe is currently enrolled at the UN Mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica as a candidate in the Master´s programme of Gender and Peace Building.