International Women’s Day 2010

Today is the 100th year of International Women’s Day, and all over the interwebs, we are celebrating advances in women’s rights and decrying the obstacles still faced by women and girls everywhere. In a world where women still get attacked with acid; where girls are stoned to death for being raped; where, in certain places, not being born male is a handicap, I feel that the strides that have been made in the past century are still dwarfed by the challenges ahead.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist per se, but I do believe in the equality of men and women in every realm of life (except maybe in sports, fine). As an educated woman from France, I’ve been given every opportunity to realize my full potential, to take advantage of everything life has to offer. Being a woman, for me, has rarely been an hindrance – on the contrary, I’m fully conscious of the advantages that come with it. Professionally, I think I’ve encountered more young-ism than sexism. I credit my parents for having brought me up with solid values, and for providing an exemplary complementary partnership at home. My mother, a faithful reader of this blog, needs to be acknowledged here: in her ability to balance family life and career, in her relentless and vocal support for equality between men and women, she has always been an inspiration and a model.

Another source of inspiration for me has been the women of Liberia. The New York Times – fittingly – just published an article entitled about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “A Nation Full of Strong Women“, as part of their Female Factor series. I recently read Ma Ellen’s autobiography, “This Child Will Be Great“, in which her strength of character, intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination come across vividly. In her book, she acknowledges (somewhat in passing) the role that women played in helping her win the presidential election. I wish she had emphasized the critical role of women in the 2005 election, and in bringing an end to the 14 year conflict more than she did.

I’ve had the chance to meet some really incredible Liberian women, both in Liberia and in Ghana. Contrarily to what some may think, Liberia is a rather matriarchal society, where women make signficant economic, political and social contributions. Of course, as is often the case in poor places, women are still not on par with men: rape and violence against women are very real, and large, issues, and girls remain less educated than their male counterparts.

That being said, I’d like to focus on the commendable, inspiring actions undertaken by Liberian women. In particular, I wish to honor this International Women’s Day by recommending that you take an hour of your time to watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“,a powerful documentary on the role of women in ending the war in Liberia. (I watched this documentary last year during the Vancouver International Film Festival, in the presence of the film maker and producer, as well as Lovetta Conto, a young lady who survived the war and is now engaged in supporting post-conflict development in her home country.) The women in this film are fearless leaders and peace-makers, the kind of people to draw inspiration and strength from. Seeing their determination in the face of adversity gives me a lot of hope: not only for the continued advancement of women’s rights, but also in the growing capacity of women to affirm themselves as leaders. For this 100th International Women’s Rights Day, my wish is that, 100 years from now, we no longer need to celebrate women, their achievements and their challenges on a specially dedicated day.

Here is the trailer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. PBS allows you to watch the full-length documentary for free; part 1 is here, part 2 is here.

On Justice

This article discusses the “snail’s pace” of Ghana’s judicial system, noting in particular that thousands of cases of domestic violence and rape have remained unpunished, leading to “mob justice”.

My only run-in with the judicial system of Ghana, earlier this month, when the case of undocumented refugees was brought to a High Court, actually lead me to believe that the country had a relatively well-functioning system (the word “relatively” is key in this sentence.) While I didn’t agree with the verdict and suspect that the judge was pressured from above, the trial seemed fair, and it took place in a speedy yet thorough fashion. Anyway, obviously, this one case does not provide perfect illustration for the judicial system of Ghana – I am merely trying to highlight the positive.

Billboard in Monrovia

Nonetheless, I’m not surprised that cases of gender-based violence aren’t dealt with appropriately in the Ghanaian courts. Besides the obvious structural problems (lack of capacity, funding, etc.), there is also a huge social taboo attached to rape and domestic abuse. Recently, we had to deal with our own case of rape within our organization… One of the members of the cooking team for the School Feeding Program, the assistant, G., raped a student from the elementary school. A 14 year old girl, in 1st grade. We were told about this only after the school principal asked him to resign – instead of firing him.
The girl lived with her grandmother, and was “moved” to Accra following the incident. The grandmother did not want to press charges against G. – and, in fact, the school discouraged her to do so. Which, to my Western sensibility, seemed quite ridiculous (for lack of a better word). But the principal explained to me that if the incident went “public”, then the school would acquire a bad reputation for harboring child rapists – I trust him on this, since he obviously knows how the community will react better than I ever will.

The point is, this reaction shows that the taboo on gender-based violence is misplaced, and that too often, perpetrators go unpunished. In fact, because G. resigned, he asked the school to pay him for the 2 weeks of work he had done that month – even though, mind you, he admitted to raping a child, the man actually had the guts to come and demand his salary. The school director and the principal disagreed on whether we should pay him – the director agreed with me that he essentially gave up his rights to ask for a salary when he raped the student… but the principal said that we owed him this money, and that if we didn’t pay him, then he may cause problems for the school. Which, again, I understand – but wow.

Is it possible that this child rapist can still make demands and basically blackmail the school? Yes it is! Because – as the aforementioned article illustrates – too often, cases of gender-based violence and rape go unpunished. How discouraging it must be for the families who do press charges, even though it will probably make their daughter/wife/sister exposed to social stigma, to not even obtain justice…

In Liberia, violence against women is still a huge problem – even UN peacekeepers have been found guilty of engaging in sex-for-food/security practices, which is incredibly worrying, even if it occurs on a small scale. The signals that it sends to the civilian population aren’t good – it makes it seem like a negligible offense.(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that these incidents involving UN staff have been investigated and are being taken very seriously by the leadership.)

There are also all the instances of domestic violence where the woman feels pressured not to report to the authorities – this is not specific to West Africa, obviously, it’s a problem that affects women in every country and social class. But in places suffering from chronic poverty, this type of situation is particularly debilitating, and, in my mind, acts as a brake on development – if you consider justice to be a fundamental element of development, which I believe it is. I’ve linked to this article before, but I find it really compelling.

Of course, fast tracking such cases in court and increasing punishment for perpetrators is but one dimension of dealing with this issue – above all, it’s about a socio-psychological shift in perception. If a school employee rapes a child, it shouldn’t reflect badly on the school, but on the person who committed the crime. In war affected societies where rape and violence against women was used as a weapon, this is of particular importance – to move forward, these societies have to take these crimes extremely seriously. The responsibility for this does not solely fall on governments and court systems – civil society has an essential role to play in reversing this trend.


Trusty MS has provided the following interesting links on the topic:

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 1

Rather, stuck between rockS and a hard place. Liberian refugees in West Africa have 3 – and only 3 – options available to them.

They can either:

  • go back to Liberia, although no longer through UNHCR, which has ended voluntary repatriation programs.
  • hope for resettlement in a Western country
  • stay where they are, ultimately lose their refugee status, and hope to become integrated into the local community

Now, my fabulous co-director Celina attracted my attention to a couple of news reports concerning the fate of ex-refugees – in Liberia and in the United States. This subject is both very interesting and quite important – it really begs the question: how should countries, international organizations, and civil society deal with protracted refugee crises? There is no set framework for dealing with these, particularly as refugee crises are sui generis and it would be difficult to develop a “one size fits all” model to work with.

My expertise is circumscribed to the Liberian refugee crisis, and I will not attempt to generalize at this point – below, I will simply try to unravel the different possibilities available to displaced Liberians, and indeed show how they are stuck between a rock, another rock, and a hard place.


The first possibility mentionned above, which is to repatriate to Liberia, seems like the most practical, sustainable solution. Indeed, as highlighted in the media, donor money is being channeled to reconstruction efforts in Liberia, and away from displaced communities – this is supposed to be seen as an incentive to go back to Liberia. With the withdrawal of UNHCR looming, it seems that going back to their country of origin is THE viable solution for refugees.

I highly recommend listening to this report entitled “Liberia repatriation dilemma” (4:45 min – you might need to use Internet Explorer, it doesn’t seem to work in Firefox for me)

According to this report, things are “fine” in Liberia. “Very fine”, as Liberians are fond of saying. But let’s look at some facts:

“[Raped?] Seek free treatment now at Benson Clinic,” reads another [sign]. It is run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

With a queue outside her door, the head nurse told me that five to 10 people arrive there every day but half of them are not women. They are young girls between five and 12 years old.

And it gets worse.

Each month the clinic treats several babies for rape but, from all the cases that have been recorded by the clinic since 2003, you can count the number of men convicted on one hand.”

“Liberia had just emerged from 14 years of civil war, during which time women and girls experienced unprecedented levels of sexual violence, with 3 in 4 women in some regions, having been raped. But evidence suggests that violence against women remains an extensive problem during this post-conflict era. “

“One of Liberia’s most notorious rebel commanders, known as Gen. Butt Naked for charging into battle wearing only boots, has returned to confess his role in terrorizing the nation, saying he is responsible for 20,000 deaths.

Joshua Milton Blahyi, who now lives in Ghana, returned last week to face his homeland’s truth and reconciliation commission, this time wearing a suit and tie. His nom de guerre is derived from his platoon’s practice of charging naked into battle, a technique meant to terrify the enemy […]

Before he led his fighters into battle, wearing only a pair of lace-up boots, Blahyi said he made a human sacrifice to the devil.

The sacrifice was typically “the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart which was divided into pieces for us to eat,” he told The Associated Press on Saturday.”

Now, the IHT article does discuss the fact that a war crimes tribunal, rather than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems more appropriate for Liberia. There are hundreds of guilty war criminals roaming the streets of Liberia. In any case, the issue of justice and reconciliation has not yet found a satisfactory resolution, and, understandably, many Liberian refugees fear that they will face more violence, more retributions and more horror if they go home, knowing that a lot of those responsible for previous atrocities are free.

(General Butt Naked lived in Buduburam, where he preached. Yes, as the IHT article notes, he became a born-again Christian, and now has a congregation to whom he preaches. I knew he was on camp, and was tempted to go see one of his sermons, but decided against – I thought this might have been too emotionally taxing. One of the missionaries I met in Buduburam told me that he saw General Butt Naked weeping on his hands and knees, begging two brothers whose other brother he had massacred for forgiveness.)

I am trying to show here that there are a lot of psychological factors, as well as material ones, that make repatriation to Liberia very difficult for those who have been displaced. It’s not a matter of picking up their things and just “going”. It’s unfortunate that this is not taken into consideration by any responsible authorities dealing with repatriation efforts.