The election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005 as President of Liberia shattered forever what was once considered a glass ceiling. The election of another female, Jewel Howard Taylor in 2017, this time as Vice President is another first. But how have women fared generally over the years, especially during the prolonged civil conflict is a story that still needs to be told. The 2009 Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Report (TRC) provides glimpses in this portion entitled “Women: Survivors and Peacemakers”
Historically, women were generally excluded from participation in political life, as it was only until 1947, a full century after independence that women were accorded the right to vote. There is no mention anywhere in historical accounts of women participation in the political life of the colony, prior to 1947, except for their participation in the making of the Liberian flag at independence.
In gender terms the dichotomy betwee n rural and urban Liberia are even more manifest in present day Liberia. For example, only 31 percent of women in Harper, located in southeastern Liberia and surrounding areas receive birth assistance from trained health professionals; in Monrovia 84 perc ent of such women received birth assistance from trained health professionals.
During the armed conflict, women and girls were by are far more vulnerable to sexual assault and predation than men. Women exposure was due mainly to their daring to move about away from their homes to venture out for food and succor for their families. The further away from their homes they went, the higher the risk of vulnerability.
Many parents hid their young girls (and boys from conscriptions) from the fighters when they entered the town or village and forbid them, the children, from moving about without caution. More than half of victim’s testimonies to the TRC alluded to women being vulnerable or victimized during the war in places other than their place of residence , having been displaced internally by the war, suggesting, therefore that displaced women were more vulnerable to sexual assault than those who did not flee their homes.
The TRC also noticed that women are significantly over-represented among rape victims and all victims of sexual slavery and sexual violence, as might be expected. In particular, the proportion of rapes with female victims aged 15 – 19 represents more than five times the proportion of women aged 15 – 19 in the general population. However, we see relatively more male than female victims for sexual abuse.
The definition of sexual abuse included stripping the victim naked and was employed by many perpetrator groups to humiliate the victim. Unfortunately, the data include very few reports of rapes for which the victim’s age is known. Still, it is interesting to note that the majority of reported rapes for which the victim’s age is known were committed against adolescent women, rather than against socially taboo categories such as older women or very young children.
The distribution of all violations by age is roughly similar for males and females. Similarly, analysis of violations documented with the TRC with complete age and sex information suggests that all ages were equally at risk and that the ge nerality of perpetrators’ attack was at random, deliberate and systematic in the instigation of violence against the general armless population.
From the statistical data, women participation in the TRC process was impressive as over fifty percent of stat ements gathered during the statement – taking exercise are attributed to women. Women account for 28 percent of all violations while on the other hand men account for 47 percent. From these statistics, it is clear that as a class of victims, men comprise the larger proportion, although both men and women appeared to have been targeted in about equal proportions.
Forced displacement which accounts for the largest category of violations took a particularly heavy toll on women, many of whom, faced with the los s of their spouses, assumed leadership roles in their families. Given the difficulties and threats to life (increased mortality) that usually accompany forced migration, it can be assumed, in the absence of reliable statistical information, that elderly wo men and very young children especially girls, were at great risk and might have suffered disproportionately as compared to males.
Many found themselves in displaced or refugee camps with little or no coping skills to deal with the harsh realities of thei r new environment. Already victimized by their displacement some, especially young girls, in desperation turned to prostitution including the exchange of relief food for sex.
As the statistics show, all factions routinely targeted women simply on account of their gender. This is strongly reflected in the level of sexual violence perpetrated against women. For example, women account for 63 percent of all cases of rape reported to the TRC, as compared to only 6 percent for men.
It can be concluded thus that women were singled out for abuse simply on account of their gender. For instance, the proportion of rape with female victims aged 15 – 19 represents more than five times the proportion of women 15 – 19 in the general population. Finally, it is important to note that aside from these reported cases of violence directed against women, the data does not account for the marginalization; exclusion and outright denial of opportunities for self actualization women have, for over a century, endured in Liberia.
These age old inequalities find expression in current statistics reflecting the status of women. For example, according to the 2007 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, HIV prevalence is higher among women than men 224 in both urban and rural areas. School enrolment and retention rates are also low for girls as compared to boys, as well as illiteracy rates which are higher as compared to men.
High teen pregnancy rates, high abortion rates, high infant and maternal mortality rates are all indicators of the long standing prejudice and inequality that have been the lot of Liberian women for well over a century. Additionally, according to the same survey report, vaccination coverage is much higher in urban than in rural areas (53 versus 33 percent). There is marked vari ation in vaccination coverage by region, ranging from 13 percent fully vaccinated in the Southeastern Region to 55 percent in Monrovia.
Such data is but reflective of long standing elitist rule and the policies of over centralization that has served to marginalize and alienate the vast majority of the country’s population. As noted earlier, the effects of such alienation and marginalization can be clearly seen and felt in areas outside the coastal urban enclaves along the country’s littoral, and are particularly acute in the southeast where local resistance to the expansion of the Liberian state was quelled, only as recently as the 1930s.
The TRC public hearings held in all fifteen political subdivisions around the country provided not only glimpses into the impact of such marginalization but also perceptions of how government is viewed by rural peoples and how such perceptions are shaped by the conduct of public policy. The public hearings also provided good insight into the pattern of violations and abuses that occurred during the period of the civil conflict, the perpetrators as well as the victims.
More importantly, the public hearings, particularly the thematic hearings served as a sounding board for measuring expectations of not only individual victims of abuse but also of communities that are still struggling to come to terms with the effects of the prolonged civil conflict. Women became involved in the peace process and therefore constituted a critical voice for peace.
Despite afflictions of the war, reduced earning potential, single parenting, etc., women had public marches, petitions, prayer crusade, and attended and participated in peace conferences as part of their agenda for peace.