The Gbowee Peace Foundation: Daring To Do What Others Dare Not

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It is often said in Liberia, foundations, especially those established by politicians, die almost as soon as they are born. A number of instances or cases in which foundations, established by high profile political personages, have died soon or not long after they were born, reflect this kind of perception. In a flung corner of the Monrovia suburb of Fiamah, a Foundation established by a leading political personality launched a school project to educate under privileged children. The project, now shut down, closed its doors to the public not long after its founder left the political scene.

The school project aptly dubbed Lolongta (Kpelle for children’s place) enrolled mainly underprivileged children from the Fiama neighborhood. For anxious parents, eager to have their children enrolled in school at no cost the Lolognta Children’s Hut was a welcome relief from the oppressive burden of ever increasing school fees and associated expenses. And for the time it lasted, the school appeared to have been doing quite well. The community response to the project was enthusiastic and supportive. Sadly today, that project has shut its doors as donor funding has since dried out and its founders have not looked back since.

It is against this backdrop that the Daily Observer welcomes the Gbowee Foundation’s establishment of an academy and training institute for women and girls.  According to its founder, the academy will provide practical training, mentorship and internship for women and girls in the areas of vocational and technical education. It will be the first of its kind devoted to the practical training, mentorship and internship for women and girls in technical and vocational disciplines.

The academy which is part of a Peace Hub located on the Monrovia Robertsfield highway already boasts of a newly completed building which, according to Madame Gbowee, will be used to provide public health education through radio programming especially targeted at women and girls. For this purpose, a public health radio studio is proposed to be established to educate women and girls on health issues.

It is a well-established fact that women in Liberia have suffered discrimination and prejudice for well over a century. For example, it was not until 1948 that Liberian women gained the right to vote. Even that right was restricted by the existence of a property clause requiring ownership of property in fee simple in order to qualify to vote. This meant that the vast majority of Liberian women were disenfranchised and excluded from meaningful participation in the political life of the country.

Even so, possibilities for upward social mobility were severely restricted by the lack of education. Biases in education, health care, land ownership, credit, prearranged and early marriage are all factors which have militated against the upward social mobility of women, in particular, entry into the workforce. The prolonged and brutal civil war also severely impacted women.

According to the TRC final Report, all factions to the conflict systematically targeted women mainly as a result of their gender and committed sexual and gender based violations against them, including rape of all forms, sexual slavery, forced marriages, forced recruitment, etc. Nearly 26,000 or 28% of reported violations were against women.  Women disproportionately suffered from sexual violence including gang rape, sexual slavery, outrages upon personal dignity, and torture, among others.

Girls and women aged 15-19 comprise the largest category of reported cases of sexual violence. Women as old as eighty-years old were perversely dehumanized through gendered violence by, for example, being forced to have sex with their sons or male relatives and by having taboo objects such spoons, sticks, hot pepper and rifle muzzles forced into their vaginal and rectal areas.

Women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery only to be passed around as ‘wives’ of roaming combatants. They were also forced to engage in both sex and hard labor, relegating them to the status of chattel slaves. Women suffered the indignity of having the children that they bore after being raped and held as sex slaves summarily taken away from them by combatants at the end of armed conflict.

Aside from the above, maternal mortality due primarily to the lack of adequate access to health care services including high unmet needs for reproductive health services are also factors affecting the plight of women in Liberia. The massive destruction of health care facilities around the country has only exacerbated the problem.

Teen pregnancy and abortion rates remain high as well as infant and maternal mortality rates. Says Dr. Torsou Jallah, a one-time medical director at the James N. Davis Hospital in Paynesville, “They take a stick and insert it into the uterus where the baby sits.  They open it up with the sharpened stick.  Sometimes while doing it, the stick breaks inside and stays there.  Sometimes you can even see pieces of chalk left inside,”.   “It is very grave, in most cases it is a 50/50 chance of survival.  They can even die from it.  If it is rotted up, all that can be done is a hysterectomy, so they will never have children again.”

Almost 10 years now since the TRC report, violence against women especially rape continues to remain high. The situation would appear hopeless but thankfully with the intervention of institutions like the Gbowee Peace Foundation, all hope is not lost. Reversing this trend and addressing injustices and abuses of the past will certainly prove to be  quite an uphill task yet it can be achieved given the dedication and commitment of purposeful minded individuals like Laymah Gbowee and others.

The Daily Observer hails the successful first steps taken by the Gbowee Peace Foundation under the leadership of rights activist Leymah Gbowee and assures of its unflinching support and solidarity in the struggle to remove the blight of ignorance that continues to afflict the lives of a large proportion of Liberian women and create opportunities for their upward social mobility self-actualization.

The Daily Observer welcomes this laudable initiative and commends Leymah Gbowee for daring, just daring to do what others dare not.

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