|July 2003: Liberian women barricading the main entrance of the conference hall - physically preventing representatives of the warring parties, other Liberian stakeholders from leaving the hall without solution to the then carnage in Liberia.|
Regrettably, only seven out of over a hundred women who participated in the talks were permitted to vote for the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Transitional Government, and references to inclusion of women and gender equity in the CPA were limited and brief (i.e., inclusion of women among the seven permanent members on the Governance Reform Commission, and call for gender balance in all elective and non-elective appointments in the NTGL). It was no surprise that the otherwise notable initiative of the women of Liberia was relegated to virtually passive observance in the usual effort to exclude women and frustrate their aspirations and rights of participation in the political mainstream.
Liberia touts the first woman president in Africa and the first African woman President of the UN General Assembly. How relevant is that when Liberian women still have a low literacy rate of 38%, constitute only 14% of the cabinet, and hold a paltry 5% representation in the legislature? In the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, young Liberian women and girls had a number of positive role models including, but not limited to, the likes of Angie Brooks Randolph, Ruth Perry, Eugenia Stevenson, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman. Now, some 30 years later, positive female role models remain at a minimum because of the persistence of patriarchal administrations that have little regard for empowerment of women and gender equity. Numerous Liberian women of notable credentials and virtue can be found both at home and in the Diaspora, yet women continue to be marginalized, particularly within the context of national politics and sustainable development.
Our society has almost always promoted cultural beliefs, social norms, and a legal environment that legitimizes and perpetuates the subordination of women. Young Liberian women and girls are being enticed or constrained to engage in transactional sex to obtain funds for family survival, school fees, food, or material enticements - or perhaps just to compete with their friends or the wife of their “godpa”. And let’s not discount the reality that many girls in Liberian schools, colleges, and universities must succumb to the sexual advances of their male teachers in order to make the grades required to pass a course or receive a diploma or degree. While it spans all income groups, the greatest common denominator in transactional sex arrangements seems to be older men and younger women or girls. Sadly, the girls are being recruited at younger and younger ages as the men become older and older, and the young women and girls who engage in transactional sex (and their families) are held responsible for the absence of, or noncompliance with, a good, moral upbringing.
Given the notion that Liberia was founded on Christian principles, it is often expected that only girls who do not come from “good homes” engage in such acts of immorality. Many of the men involved, however, claim to be stalwart Christians - some of them prominent members of their respective churches - who make all efforts to protect their own daughters (and other female members of their families) from such unconscionable activities as they continue their distasteful behavior with impunity. It should be noted that such a criticism is not exclusive to Christians. Men who are members or leaders of other faith groups such as Islam, Bahai, and Traditional African Religion also exploit young women and label them as persons of disrepute. At the end of the day, it is consistently the woman who bears the blame.
But in post-war Liberia, where so many women and girls have been stripped of their femininity, their dignity, their homes and other material belongings, and where opportunities for education and honest income generation are scarce, engaging in transactional sex has become a necessary evil. Ours is a society where women of social prominence and dignity are dishonored by the blatant sexual indiscretions of their spouses, and it would seem more appealing and profitable to be a mistress than a wife. Where, then, is the incentive for a woman to marry and create a family structure when infidelity has become a norm rather than an anomaly? One might argue that this scenario can be found in any modern-day African nation; that this does not necessarily represent a Liberian problem but rather a historical legacy that is specifically designed within the paradigm of any patriarchal society. Well, the universality of the situation does not make it right and the resultant erosion of our society is not a justifiable end.
In addition to social and moral repercussions, the raging wave of sexual promiscuity in which Liberian women and girls have become enveloped has had a negative impact on our nation’s public health status. It is well known that most Liberian men have an aversion to using condoms, whether with their wives/significant others or their extra-relational partners. Because women are biologically more likely than men to become infected during sexual intercourse with an infected partner, they experience the greatest incidence of exposure to sexually transmitted infections, especially HIV/AIDS. UNICEF statistics for 2003 report that more than half of the estimated 100,000 Liberians living with HIV are women. Even the foreign aid workers and UNMIL soldiers who infiltrate our communities with the promise of restoration of peace and return to normalcy have victimized the most vulnerable members of our female population, and we now have a new breed of single mothers – children who have children - young, inexperienced, girls who are ill-equipped to care for themselves and the children that they bring into this world, adding even more to our heavy public health, social, and economic burden.
While many men may be sensitive to the issues that pertain to women, the limited funding allocated by our male-dominated administrations for programs that address the needs of this vital segment of our population speaks to the need to revisit the status quo. We must consider that, now, many of our communities are experiencing a redefinition of the classical family unit (in which the man is the head of the family, responsible for representing, providing for, and protecting his dependents) to the grandmother-mother-child triad in which the dominant male figure is noticeably absent. Who, then, will best champion the interests of women and children?
The value of women to our nation cannot be over-emphasized; but while women can contribute to the overall goodness and moral integrity, they can also destroy the very moral fiber of our society. It is imperative, therefore, that more women of credence and conscience be empowered and encouraged to actively participate in the rebuilding and governance of the new republic so that the rights and issues specific to women are properly articulated and supported. We must invest in institutions that will build girls’ confidence, knowledge, skills, and self-esteem and provide them with viable alternatives for economic survival. We must endorse leaders who will commit to national policies that will guarantee the education and health of women and girls, and empower them to make choices that would significantly benefit families, communities, our nation, and the world as a whole. We must either verbalize our intolerance of the debasement of our women and girls or assume responsibility for our contributions to the demise of our society - but until women's subordinate status in our society is truly elevated and we can comfortably claim gender equity, our struggle continues.