Liberia: In the Country Where Woman Is King
In Lascahobas, Haiti, the women say, “a bad husband is the key to paradise. The pain and sacrifice a woman endures, paves her way to heaven.” Religious hypocrisy. In another country like Haiti, the man laughed and said, “even if you meet a rat as big as a house, it is still meat for the cat.” He was referring to the perceived subordinate place of women vis-a-vis their relationship with men. In Liberia, a former presidential candidate, when asked about his campaign platform as it related to women’s rights, said, “There is no need to worry. We love our women in this country. We give them seats when they enter a room.”
One hears these stories of women everywhere, all similar, but today we can say that Liberia is different. It is the country where woman is king. In the country where a woman is king, the virginal spirits of women howl in silence, suffocated by global praise-singing, and once, by a women’s colloquium. To tell this story is like retching in a pristine space; or volunteering to slip into the world of the depressed. I make a choice to do what a friend from Lofa County in Liberia describes as “breaking down the women’s bathroom in the town” to lift the cover off the imposed superficial gloss—the color of hurt and disempowerment—on Liberian women, and girls, and babies.
Rape (add the incestuous kind), like in the past, continues to be the scourge of the times even after Liberia’s 15-year civil war. And we thought we were at last free of warlord Charles Taylor and his excess baggage of lawlessness. But with over 75% of Liberians living in absolute poverty and a legacy of 60,000 traumatized ex-fighters, some of whom were women and girl sex slaves, our rosy glasses shatter. Murder, rape and other forms of gender-based violence were weapons of choice during the war. It has not ended. Women, young girls and in some cases babies are raped on a daily basis. Rape is the single most reported crime according to the police. Access to justice and other rights is difficult, and there is resistance by courts toward the new rape law.
The media and marketing industries have a field day with women bodies. Mobile phone companies, the local brewery, airlines and banks use women’s faces and bodies to exclaim “freshness” and efficiency. Red lips dressed up tell you where a flight goes. Smiles stretched to the limit proclaim the efficacy of a skin bleaching cream. And yes, we still have Miss Liberia every year. Women are still seen as “seductive” and “sexually available” despite the fact that we elected Africa’s first female president in 2005. In fact, some men see this political change as an affront, a temporary embarrassment and our woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as a bad joke. As a woman, I laugh too . . . sometimes.
In December 2008, our Information Minister, whose homilies and rants invade our minds via the UN Mission radio station every morning, decried the rape of a nine year old girl. He warned rapists to seek the services of older women and prostitutes if they need sex. He is not alone in this privileged position that allows one to diminish the rights of women (with a focus on their age or level of sexual activity).
Even our president discussed “indecent dress” and the government’s interest in regulating the entry of indecently dressed girls and boys “with braided hair” into public buildings. I am not sure how she planned to do that, but the skill of identifying indecently dressed women definitely lies in the hands of the legislature. Elfreda Tamba, a senior Government Minister was denied audience with that body. Her infraction? She dared to expose her arms in such honorable space. This is one of the times I laugh!
Again, this year, 2009, in a much publicized case of an 8 year old Liberian girl, allegedly sexually assaulted by four Liberian boys in the United States, the Deputy Ambassador to the U.S. tried to “help dispel notions that rape is condoned”. Edwin Sele told the Associated Press that “Liberians all over the world are very much outraged and don’t want to be stigmatized by this.”
The difficulties in reconciling his statement to the reality are enormous. A few months ago, I saw three girls below age twelve who had been raped in one night by a pastor. One of the girls could not sit properly. While they were on their way to a safe home, their father was negotiating the release of the pastor. He wanted the bishop to settle the case. This situation is typical. The girl’s father action was in tandem with the parents of the 8 year old in Arizona. The power of socialization screams, albeit the distance.
Small information for the Ambassador and like-minded individual: a Save the Children report identified ten countries where motherhood carries the most risks for young women and their babies. Of these, nine were in sub-Saharan Africa, and Niger, Liberia, and Mali were the nations where girls were the most at risk. In the ten highest risk nations, more than one in six teenage girls between the ages of fifteen to nineteen gave birth annually. Teenage pregnancy is linked to statutory rape and exposure to HIV.
Finally, in Putu Jarwode, Southeastern Liberia, I met an old man living on the fringes of Sapo forest. He believes that women’s sole reason for being is to provide children and sex to men. In this same area, mothers had already told me girls as young as eleven are sexually active. The old man warned us not to criticize this practice as “the girls are women by night and girls by day. No one has died. Women were made for these things”.
This explanation was like a punch to my belly, a sharp blow to my heart. How could this be a part of Liberia, which has a woman president? How can we respond to this countrywide problem when it is carried out in the name of culture and tradition? The Southeastern B region (River Gee, Grand Kru, Maryland) has the highest HIV prevalence rate, 1.7%, behind Montserrado.
Whether it’s eleven-year-old girls in the southeast exposed to rape, early marriage and HIV, or the HIV-positive women who see their rapists hold powerful positions in the Liberian parliament, the dire situation of women in Liberia requires action that is far removed from political rhetoric and lip service, which further places women and girls at marginalized peripherals. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final unedited report is a significant example of how women’s issues are forced into invisibility, symbolic of a national mindset; but that is a discussion for another day, another story.
Today, due to women’s activism and advocacy, new laws are slowly changing the position and condition of women in our country. Women can inherit property and should no longer be “inherited” by male relatives. There are also more girls in school and communities know that lack of education is linked to many issues that leave girls vulnerable, including rape, sexual exploitation and abuse, unfairness in the distribution of labor between boys and girls, and discriminatory culture practices. Lack of seriousness and intelligence do not play any role in the low literacy rates for girls.
Women are demanding that policy makers look at their issues, especially HIV and violence against women. In the 2008 Global AIDS Week of Action, there was a march on the legislature by members of an organization of women living with HIV and AIDS to demand access to treatment and healthcare and an end to stigmatization and discrimination.
There is also an unprecedented inclusion of women in government, although we hear that some monster called “culture” denies women from becoming town chiefs in many parts of Liberia. We intend to set up an appointment with Mr. Culture soon.
There is good news, but there is so much work to be done in changing attitudes. I recently asked a group of protection officers, working for a local NGO in Zwedru, a trick question.
“What would happen in communities if boys were being raped on a daily basis, say ten boys at school every week?”
They looked at me as if I was no longer the same person that entered their office.
They replied, outraged at the question, “People would be angry and take the cases to court! There would be no compromise!”
“Why?” I asked.
“Rape of a boy is abnormal!” They almost screamed their answer at me.
This answer confirmed my thoughts: the rape of girls and babies is “normal” because women are made for sex. Sooner or later, sex is bound to happen, regardless of when or the form. The age of a little girl or baby holds no boundary.
In a room in Zwedru, my mind goes back to Burundi where as a Liberian woman, I sat and watched, too numb to shout the unknown and yet striking similarities shared by Liberian and Burundian women, as those women drew their pain on the earth. They enacted a ritual to release the psychological pain, while for some of them, the physical pain would never leave their bodies.
We who work for women bring violence against women to life. We give our experiences to development workers, prone to excavating anguish, and perhaps . . . . building power . . . Change will come, slowly, and surely when each woman becomes queen.
Copyright © Korto Williams