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Girls by day, women by night

Sunday, September 14, 2008 - 13:28

In Liberia, women face an unprecedented amount of discrimination. Korto Williams, country director for ActionAid Liberia, describes the daily challenges and how we are working to meet them.

Liberia’s 15-year civil war ended in 2003 and we were at last free of warlord Charles Taylor. But with over 75% of Liberians left in absolute poverty and a legacy of 60,000 traumatised ex-combatants – some of whom were women and girl sex slaves – our rosy view of a new society was soon shattered.

Sad to say, murder, rape and other forms of antifemale violence were weapons of choice during the war. Even now, women are still seen as ‘expendable’, despite the fact that we elected Africa’s first female president in 2005.

The majority of men see this political change as an affront, and our president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as a bad joke.

Women and young girls are raped on a daily basis. Access to justice and other rights is difficult – for example, there is mass resistance by courts towards a national rape law brought in last year. While there have been successful prosecutions, the majority of rape cases do not make it to court for fear of reprisals against the survivors’ families. Since so many rape cases are also incestuous, there is also a reluctance to take family members to court. Cultural conflict resolution practices – for example, killing a goat for the entire community to have a feast in order to make peace – serve as a barrier to reporting rape officially.

ActionAid Liberia launched the Women won’t wait campaign in 2007 – our way of highlighting the link between HIV and violence against women.

We worked with communities, the media, policy makers and school authorities to develop home grown approaches to end violence against women and HIV. But while local journalists travelled with our team to talk to the women affected, they also demanded money to print the stories. We refused to pay.

Feeling frustrated, I arranged a meeting with one of our biggest newspaper editors to discuss our difficulties in getting coverage. He assured me it was all a mistake – women’s stories were important and would be published. Today, almost a year later, the story remains unprinted.

Understand these things and you’ll see why the fight for women’s rights in Liberia is not for the faint-hearted. My blood pressure and grey hair could outstrip an Olympic runner. My family ask me, why don’t you resign and have peace?

I’ll tell you why. One day, in Putu Jarwode, southeast Liberia, an old man joined us at one of our community workshops. When the issue of women’s was – albeit unwillingly – raised, this man asserted his belief that women’s sole reason for being was to provide children and sex to men.

Local mothers told me that girls as young as 11 were sexually active. The old man warned ActionAid not to criticise this practice since the girls were “women by night and girls by day”. According to him, no one had died and women were made for these things. This explanation was like a punch to my belly, a sharp tug to my heart. Not only that, but it seemed entirely possible that I was the only one shocked at this revelation. How can ActionAid respond to this countrywide problem when it is carried out in the name of culture and tradition?

Whether it’s for 11-year-old girls exposed to rape, early marriage and HIV, or for some of the HIV-positive women who see those who raped them hold office in parliament, ActionAid’s focus on women’s rights is bringing change.

In fact, the link between HIV and violence against women has become ActionAid Liberia’s ‘problem’, with donors and others working on HIV demanding ‘empirical evidence’ for our assertions.

The evidence, if more were needed, comes as I sit in a room with members of the Liberian Women’s Empowerment Network – LIWEN – the only network ofHIV-positive women in Liberia.

They are recounting their personal stories. One woman states that she was raped by four men, who gashed her neck and left her for dead. When another young woman named a notorious rebel commander as her rapist and said, “during the war I was raped by Jack the Rebel”, I was too deep in tears to continue typing on my laptop.

ActionAid serves as a mentor to this network, raising money to educate people in Liberia who claim that HIV is a scam by western countries to ‘discourage sex’.

While access to justice and other rights is difficult, new laws are changing women’s position and conditions. ActionAid Liberia works in 30 communities in western Liberia, providing uniforms, text books, after school programmes and skills training for older girls and women. Women’s rights and leadership training have been conducted to highlight the potential role of communities in ending violence against women and girls.

Women are now demanding that policy makers look at their needs, especially on HIV and violence. In the recent Global AIDS Week of Action, ActionAid and LIWEN marched on parliament to demand access to treatment and care, and an end to stigma and discrimination. ActionAid Liberia is prioritising women in political leadership – recently, LIWEN gained government recognition as the first national network of positive women, and members have been invited to join the national AIDS commission. And today, despite legislative rejections and resistant attitudes, there is also an unprecedented inclusion of women in government.

Change will come. It is slow, but it is sure. Counting all of this, it is still a good day to be called a Liberian woman, a change-maker, especially one who works for ActionAid.