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.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 3

Besides resettlement and repatriation, the third – and possibly most elusive – option for refugees is local integration. Interestingly, as I write this, hundreds of Liberian women are protesting in the Buduburam refugee camp, seeking “an immediate redress to [their] plight.” In a fascinating turn of events, Liberian women are calling upon the UNHCR, the government of Ghana and other relevant authorities to help them resettle in Liberia. You can read an article relating these events, as well as the open letter expressing the grievances of this group here. The women are very clear – they are not interested in local integration programs, primarily because of a deeply embedded fear of discrimination. The article relates some gruesome stories about murders and attacks on refugees by the local population – when in Buduburam, I remember hearing such stories, with photos of dismembered individuals to support the claims. The women also seem to believe that true integration is simply not a possibility for them – that Ghanaian society will not be able to accomodate them.

Finally, the women ask for $1000 per household member to return to Liberia, as well as a variety of reintegration programs to be put in place for them as returnees. While the rationale for this stance is understandable from their perspective, I – unfortunately – strongly believe that these demands will never be met by the UNHCR.

I truly admire these women for their tenacity – The Niapele Project field coordinator, Jessica Leombruno, is providing us with updates from the field on a regular basis, and their movement is a peaceful one, done in the pure tradition of non-violent civil action, and, for this, I commend them. We hear how they have been on the main soccer field, day in and day out, for weeks, sleeping outside, even in the rain – their determination and courage is inspiring.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of this movement that seem counter-productive – for instance, school children are encouraged not to attend school and to “strike” with their mothers, aunts and sisters. While this is a powerful way to express the seriousness of the situation, it is to the detriment of these children, for who education is an absolute necessity. The school that The Niapele Project is partenered with has been shut down due to this strike, and, as a result, the School Feeding Program is not functioning either, depriving the elementary school children of the daily meal they normally receive.

The government of Ghana is now making it clear that it will not tolerate this situation for very long, and is calling on the women to end their strike, which is in breach of the Public Order Act of 1994. Representatives from the UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have apparently met with the women to discuss their grievances (unsuccessfully), and the Liberian Welfare Council (the only officiously elected body that represents the interests of the Liberian refugees in Buduburam), as well as the Camp Manager, have not been supportive. Sadly, it seems that no one is taking their claims very seriously.

At the same time, their demands are not driven by pragmatism, and reflect the lack of understanding of how the institutions that are supposed to represent and support them function. I highly doubt the UNHCR will grant each refugee $1000 (in cash!), and accede to the demands for scholarship programs for returness in Liberia. The UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have been diverting funds and attention towards local integration and self-reliance programs, and towards initiatives benefiting returnees already in Liberia.

Furthermore, the UNHCR budget for programs benefiting Liberian refugees in Ghana is dwindling – from $9.6 million in 2007 to $5 million (projected) for 2009. Only $20,000/year is dedicated to income generation programs… The reality is that the UNHCR will not continue to support this community, and that asking them to spend 10s of millions of dollars on repatriation efforts is not a realistic demand. It’s extremely unfortunate that this movement is not better organized and better informed.

The UNHCR, the Ghana Refugee Board and other relevant authorities cannot stand by idly while this is going on – dialogue has to occur, and these women need to acknowledged. If authorities are going to privilege local integration, then more needs to be done to communicate the benefits of this to refugees. Their concerns about insecurity and discrimination have got to be addressed, and MUCH MORE than $20,000 needs to be spent on creating economic opportunities for them. Perhaps other UN agencies or international NGOs could step in to create large scale micro-credit programs, as well as provide educational and training opportunities for this community. For now, however, apart from the UNHCR and the WFP (whose contributions to improving refugee livelihoods in Buduburam is subpar), there are absolutely no other international organizations providing that sort of service.

It’s very disconcerting to see the complete lack of understanding that exists between the refugees and the institutions that are responsible for them. Local integration could actually benefit the refugees of Buduburam – Ghana is a much more economically dynamic country than Liberia, and opportunities could be created for this community, which already contributes to the vitality of the local economy by patronizing Ghanain businesses.

Perhaps a solution to this would be to provide Liberian refugees with the opportunity to become economically active, and encourage them to save money in order to return to Liberia proudly – on their own dime – when they are ready. This could be a long, difficult process, but it could be the only possible compromise between the stakeholders.

We just got a group of students together at Sciences Po for The Niapele Project- they’re going to be researching and writing a paper defining and benchmarking best practices in protracted refugee crises – how governments and international agencies should structure their disengagement and construct durable solutions based on the reality of each affected community.

The events taking place in Buduburam are testament to the fact that the modus operandi adopted until now by international agencies and the Ghana Refugee Board needs to evolve – more consultations with the local population, better information and communication, as well as more implication of the refugees in identifying and implementing solutions, are vital.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
~ Margaret Thatcher