Women, peace, and development: lessons from post-war Liberia

It is increasingly recognized that effective national rebuilding after civil wars needs to include women at every level. This column reports on post-war challenges in Liberia, where women played a key role in the peace process and the election of the first female president in Africa. The author explains why women’s political visibility is essential, calling for an end to domestic and sexual violence, and a global push for political inclusion and representation. She emphasizes the importance of integrating ‘gender mainstreaming’ into politics, peace-building and reconciliation efforts, with an acute awareness of how the organization of the economy will affect the general stability and wellbeing of the nation.

In August 2020, thousands of Liberians took to the streets to protest the worsening problem of rape in the country. Three days into these demonstrations, staged outside the foreign affairs ministry where the president’s office is housed, police used tear gas to disperse protesters. But the resistance would not admit defeat: two weeks later, President Weah declared rape a national emergency.

For women who had been at the front lines advocating for an end to the long and brutal Liberian civil war – working, initially in conditions of obscurity and disregard, for the peace that was finally achieved in 2003 – and then in mobilizing a historic voter registration drive that led to the election of the first female president in Africa, the shift in the visibility of their suffering is a familiar one.

Together with that president, one of the Liberian women peace-makers was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She and her fellow women organizers were honored with an elevation in status as the ‘guardians of peace’, and their renown inspired a vital influx of humanitarian aid to support the massive reconciliation efforts following the war.

But with the challenges of persistent gender inequities, widespread poverty, and resurging violence in Liberia, ways to support the goals of women in the peace movement must be considered with greater urgency and an expanded lens on the sources of conflict that Liberians face.

It is increasingly understood that in post-war societies, effective and long-lasting peace processes and rebuilding efforts include women at every level. ‘Gender mainstreaming’ has been embraced across humanitarian and development initiatives – and there is increased awareness of the importance of integrating peace-building and development.

While Liberia’s current challenges are historically unique, they are also comparable to other post-war nations that depend on extractive industries to power their economies. Research on women’s security and mobility in post-war societies suggests that their peace-building activism can be better supported in a three-fold approach.

First, while women may be successful in strategically using their ‘social invisibility’ to work behind the scenes and under the radar of repression in wartime, women’s political visibility is necessary to their mobility in settled times. So visible leadership must take priority in politics and policy at every level.

In Liberia, women gained in government posts after the civil war. But their presence in the legislature stands now at only around 13%. In the 2017 elections for the House of Representatives, only nine out of the 146 women who ran won a seat. In the 2020 senatorial elections, 20 women ran, with only one declared a winner, while female candidates accused male opponents of fraud and violence aimed at excluding women.

Experts and civil society advocates agree that a gender quota must be legally set in place to overcome these disparities. A coalition of Liberian civil society groups backed by international organizations has pushed for an amendment that would require all parties to present no less than 30% of either gender among their candidates. Achieving this should be among the top priorities of policy-makers and their international allies in supporting electoral reform and the democratic process in Liberia (as in all post-war countries).

Many Liberian women have demonstrated an extraordinary resolve to tackle social problems. Such a quota would both help to offset the sexism and other barriers that often keep them out of office, and give them powerful positions from which to effect cultural and legal changes related to the many challenges facing the country – from sexual assault to official corruption.

Second, the efficacy of peace work will ultimately be limited if the direct and indirect sources of suffering, conflict, and violence are not addressed. This means joining the dots between trauma healing work and access to sustainable employment, between anti-violence training and women’s empowerment work.

The international community has long understood this principle in theory. Practice on the ground in Liberia has faced many challenges, especially the entrenched culture of political corruption that some leaders fear will lead to market collapse in an already struggling economy.

The revival of traditional ‘Palava Peace Huts’ has been a key strategy in providing local communities with centers for reconciliation, justice, and empowerment for women. This project, managed by local peace activists with support from humanitarian organizations, has provided a variety of much-needed resources, including financial support, access to cell phones and communication networks, and women’s training and advocacy, as well as conflict-resolution training and forums.

Aid and other allied organizations should approach peace-building as entailing a responsibility to meet the most basic needs of people in post-war communities. While, these services may be specialized, they should also be integrated for greater effect.

At the national level, women workers receive less protection and support than their male counterparts – the Decent Work Act supports unionization in the private sector, which is predominantly made up of men. Where women workers are more prevalent, in the civil sector, the Civil Service Standing Order is currently interpreted as not giving the right to unionize. Many women work in the informal sector, where inequities are even greater. Ameliorating such inequities in visibility and power must also take priority.

Finally, the work of tracing the origins of violence should be done on a global scale. The organization Global Witness performed a pivotal peace-making role in the final years of the war with its advocacy against the global timber sales that then President Taylor was using to fund arms imports.

Today, the relationship between foreign direct investment, exports, and suffering is harder for many in the humanitarian support community to discern. And the link between industry transparency measures and improvements in governance is not yet strong or reliable in Liberia. But the evidence is growing that extractive industries play a powerful and largely destructive role in the country’s post-war political economy.

Currently, over 50% of the land in Liberia is in commercial and agricultural use, and nearly all of this land (40% of the country’s land) is under contract with foreign companies. Violence has continued to erupt not only in the home and at the polls in Liberia, but also around these industry sites where jobs for native Liberians are scarce and the companies’ promises to communities were left unfulfilled.

Government officials have historically benefited from corrupt arrangements with these industries, while those most directly affected by their activities have been harmed. In a world with such extensive legal instrumentation to push states to affirm citizens’ economic and social rights, support for women’s peace and security must take a 30,000-foot view of the multiplicity of inequities faced in a country.

Scholarship on peace-building and extractive economies urges us to ask how we can stand with Liberians and all post-war people in rebuilding their right to peace and self-determination without exploitation. All parties in positions of power in both public and private sectors must share accountability.

As women take a strong stand for an end to domestic and sexual violence, and as they push for political inclusion and representation, we must take stock of all the challenges that stand in the way of these rights and do the hard work of disentangling their interconnections with other forces of insecurity and corruption.

 

Author:

Selina Gallo-Cruz is an Associate Professor of Sociology at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, United States. She is the author of Political Invisibility and Mobilization: Women against State Violence in Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Liberia.