The Critical Role of Liberian Women in Society

By Josephus Moses Gray

It is imperative for a liberal society such as ours to encourage women, to enhance the growth and development of the society, so as to enable them excel. Any society that downplays the ability of women and that continues to subscribe to outdated beliefs which prohibit the advancement of women such society will always be at conflict with itself. Giving the information gathered during this research, it is all clear that women have become victims of not only war but of so many unfortunate practices that still obstruct their advancement, but yet they have been steadfast, and have greatly contributed to the Liberian society.

For example, the late Mother Mary Brownell and several other courageous mothers and critical voices were among the thousands of victimized women who refused to play to the threats of their male counterparts, as they were undeterred by war. They stood their grounds and courageously echoed their voices by pressing the rebel leaders to seek solutions through the conference table and not by bullets and force of arms. These strong and fearless women voices had a collective objective: to reawaken the Liberian spirit for peace, given the sensation and hardship of the long years of the bloody war and the need for the restoration of democracy; the process which has now borne democratic elections across the republic. Out of an unthinkable display of bravery, our mothers extended their search for genuine peace to unsafe military zones, in short, they ran the day-to-day affairs of their homes and also by ensuring that the madness in the country be brought to an end.

These non-violent Liberian women are also credited for the amity and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement; the Accra accord which has been praised for the 2005 election of President Johnson-Sirleaf. This struggle of Liberian women began, according to some accounts with the famous role of Mother Suakoko of Bong County. In the book titled: Liberia’s Emerging Democracy: the Role of Liberian Women and the Media, this author outlined the critical role Liberian women played in taking the bull by the horn to force former war-lords and politicians to affix their signatures to the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord for Liberia on 16 August 2003. Need it be mentioned that the usefulness of women in every society is very important, besides being the natural channel through which a child is brought forth in the world; it is the mother who first gives her blessings to the child before the father.

It is also a deep rooted belief in the rural areas that the easiest way to capture a village is to seize the children when playing together by the riverside.  According to the story, when the child is captured and cannot be found in the community, the person who bears the pain and quickly follows in search of the missing child is the mother. When the mother is also captured the people who follow are the men, who are considered the leaders of the whole village. When they are caught, the village is conquered. In the Liberian setting, for instance, women were for many years relegated only to playing traditional roles such as housewives and mothers. The girls were restricted to helping their mothers in the homes and were denied basic education. Most parents would prefer sending their male children to school than the females owing to the perception that the boys will grow and get married and still bear the family’s name, while the girls would become the wives of others and eventually bear new names. However, Liberian women have defied this outdated perception and have distinguished themselves in our society, we owe them much.

This usefulness was proven, for instance, during the 2003 peace talks held in the Ghanaian capital, Accra when belligerent groups displayed an improper behavior by delaying to sign the peace agreement to end the war, a group of Liberian women from diverse backgrounds took the bold steps when they, locked the doors to deny the participants from leaving the conference hall as a means of pressurizing ex-leaders of warring factions, political parties and civil society organizations to find a common ground and put an end to the imbroglio and stalement. Our mothers who were violated, harassed, beaten and stripped of their goods and values, as they were subdued and maltreated, were still those who were leading the front for lasting solution, a testament to their resilience. Hence, it was women, especially during the heyday of the bloody civil war in Liberia who braced and took on the harsh, dangerous and terrifying terrains fending for their families as bullets were flying indiscriminately, while their male-counterparts were stuck in complete seclusion fearful for their lives of being conscripted. In the process, some women were unfortunately subjected to sexual abuse, beaten and tortured by combatants.

 The painful experiences of women during the war were one of unanimity. But this cruel treatment did not deter them from their non-violent advocacy for peace and an end to the fratricidal civil feud in the country.

 These spirited women must today be celebrated by the society and the civilized world and of such is Mother Mary Brownell. With a clear belief  that the brutal war had to end, and an effort to stop the suffering and destruction, these peace activists organized daily sit-ins at the fish market in Sinkor and other surroundings to draw the attention of all and sundry. They organized street protests, rallies, sex-strikes and demonstrations to convince the warring factions to disarm and stop the bloodshed in return for peace. The women would dress in white t-shits and white head-ties, and were successful in organizing dozens of street protests across the country.    

While Liberian woman groups and activists took their peace crusades to the doors of West African leaders and Head of States in demand of peace in the country, some women were stripped of their incomes, love ones and families, and forced to join the “armed struggle” and some did, so that they could meet their livelihood and feed themselves and their families.  Majority of the victims had no choice but to comply with the fighters as the country suffered complete break-down of law and order during the dark period 

Some of the strategies employed by the woman included the released of public statements to the media both at national and international levels which gave a vivid picture of the situation that the suffering population was experiencing. Their desires for lasting peace largely contributed to the attainment of stability in the country. It is widely perceived and reported that the indisputable contribution of Liberian women during the 2005 poll, saw the election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The election of the first female Liberian and African President is a direct manifestation of the significant role played by women in ending the war. Their active participation in the Liberian peace process demonstrates how women are not just mere victims of war and spectators but active players capable of achieving what their male counter-parts have deliberately failed to achieve.

Hence, the international community exerted enormous pressure on the heads of belligerent forces to stop the fighting and let peace reign. As the saying goes, when war erupts, be it between countries or groups of armed bandits, it is a known fact that ‘the truth is always the first casualty.’ Likewise, women and children were also constantly victimized by ex-fighters and armed groups. For instance, in a practical case of domestic violence, women are always the victims, while in absolute cases the children followed. But this societal marginalization has not stopped Liberian women from exceling to the top.  Liberian women are strong and resilient and that is why when Liberia’s Angie Brooks Randall made her debut at the United Nation it was an eye opener, or a wake-up call and the beginning of a long journey for women (Liberian) to take the fight directly to the door stairs of their male-counterparts that have dominated governance in Liberia, Africa’s first republic. Some of the women who made it to the top included former Chairman of the Interim Government dubbed Council of State, Madam Ruth Perry, President Johnson-Sirleaf, former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Gloria Musu Scott and Frances Johnson-Morris Allison, former Foreign Minister, Olubanke King-Akerele and D. Musuleng Cooper and a host of others who are now heading several government ministries and agencies.

And despite equally proving their worth as leaders, critics have expressed reservations regarding the manner and form in which the United Nations is forcing this gender based and balance agenda down the throats of the male-counterpart, by insisting that certain percentage of women be represented in the legislatures and other parts of the economy. Although they welcomed the drive, they have stressed that women should obtain these positions based on merits. However, due to space problem, I have decided to restrict myself by discussing the role of four Liberian women in particular, although in general, I have managed to discuss the significant contributions of the Liberian woman in totality. These four women are: Ruth Sando-Perry, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Laymah Gbowee, and Mother Mary Brownell.

 

The late Mother Mary Brownell 

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 Few weeks ago, the poisonous hands of death took away Mother Mary Brownell, but her name will not soon be forgotten owing to her non-violent role in the obtainment genuine peace and democracy in the county. Madame Mary Brownell, a respectable woman of society by all accounts, was a classroom teacher and peace campaigner. In her search for peace, she has gone beyond national borders, and has greatly impacted the country’s peace process and humanity. She left an indomitable mark on the landscape for a young generation to emulate.

 

 

 The late Ruth Sando Perry

The indispensable role played by Mother Ruth Sando Perry is remarkable, an astute stateswoman who hailed from grand Cape Mount County has gone down in history as a leader; her involvement in the restoration of law and order has helped to transform conditions in the country during the heat of the crisis, while her role for peace is noted. Mother Sando-Perry devoted herself to dividing her experience with the women of the Mano River Basin and with others from all over Africa. As the first Female Head of State and Chairperson of Council of State of the Liberia National Transitional Government, Sando Perry presided over the first disarmament exercises of the warring parties in the country; she helped to repatriate and resettled refugees and internally displaced persons, and conducted ECOWAS supervised Special election, which brought Dictator Charles Taylor to power. The month of August 1997 was a historic time when, for the first time, a woman was unanimously selected by West African Heads of State as leader of an interim African government, beating two other candidates. Ruth Sando Perry was installed as the third president of the state council and presided over the Six-man joint presidency. Her mandate was a difficult one to execute, and she succeeded where many failed, by establishing the first peace framework in several years, guiding the country to a Special democratic polls of 1997 which Charles Taylor with over 75% votes.

 

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

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 Liberia is known for making history, and this time electing Africa’s first woman to be democratically elected Head of State in a male dominated society also made the history books. Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a mother of four sons, in the 2005 November run-off presidential election won the hearts of the electorates and was given a mandate to move the country forward. On January 16, 2018 she shall peacefully hand-over power to her successor. She has been working tirelessly to rebuild a country ravaged by 14-years of civil war; the country has been stable since, but there has been public outcry against corruption and other short-comings. But she has helped to secure and maintain peace across the country. Immediately following her historic inauguration in 2006, she began a charm offensive with international financial institutions which are familiar to her as she worked in the international system, before becoming president, working hard she erased about four billion debt, secured bilateral grants and aids for the reconstruction of the country and also attracted investors. She also helped to restore the nation’s image abroad, and has allowed press freedom. She to some extend has done well, but you wouldn’t find everybody agreeing with you.  Johnson-Sirleaf is well known on the global stage and has been well received in foreign capitals during her presidency. The affection for President Johnson-Sirleaf in the contemporary politics of Liberia is half full half empty, depending on which of the side you find yourself, however, let’s wait and see how the affection for the president is going to be when she shall have relinquished power to her heir. While there are several issues to be accomplished, the President deserved credit for her notable achievements in the country. In 2011, the President shared the prestigious Nobel Prize for Peace with two other non-violent women campaigners – fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

 

Roberta Leymah Gbowee

Roberta Leymah Gbowee, peace campaigner and a joint winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize led the women’s movement to help end the formerly ruthless war in Liberia. Her rise in the women’s movement began on a dusty football field opposite the Fish Market on Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia. According to several accounts published, she urged women to be like her and to pray for peace. Irrespective of religion, Gbowee followers during the dark period in the nation recent past history often dressed in white, praying and fasting seven-days a week-24-hours a day and 30-days a month for peace. These mothers are the true champions and freedom fighters that all Liberians must celebrate.

 Email: jmoses1970@yahoo.com

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