MONROVIA, Liberia—As a feminist and reporter based in West Africa, I was drawn to Liberia by the promise of women, who played a significant role in rebuilding a nation left shattered by 14 years of civil war.
The international face of the West African country established by freed slaves from the United States and once defined by TV footage of warlords and boy soldiers slinging AK-47s, sometimes in drag, is now represented by strong and politically active women.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – nicknamed the Iron Lady – is Africa’s first female president and her fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee is a women’s rights activist. Former first lady Jewel Howard-Taylor is now a powerful senator. And Mary Broh, commonly called “the General,” spearheaded robust sanitation efforts as formidable and former Monrovia mayor.
Their mere presence has inspired many other women here to imagine futures for themselves that seemed impossible throughout Liberia’s conflict, when women and girls faced widespread and horrific sexual violence, killings, torture and mutilation. In recent years, women have grown emboldened to fight longstanding societal ills. But the road toward equality is postmarked by obstacles, despite gains made by women political players.
“HOW CAN A WOMAN BE MY EDITOR?”
In my first few months in Monrovia, I befriended Wade Williams, an investigative journalist and news desk chief at FrontPageAfrica. Her outward appearance as a young, reserved single mother of two is deceptive: She is known by her colleagues for lambasting reporters and around town for bringing high-profile sources to their knees.
A slip of the tongue in Williams’ presence has often made front-page news. When President Johnson Sirleaf, for example, claimed during a speech in New York that Liberian mothers stole their children’s voter registration cards so she could win the 2005 presidential vote, Williams grabbed the story, winning her the Press Union of Liberia’s Journalist of the Year award. She is one of two women to win the award since the press union was established in 1964.
Williams’ story, in part, reflects how Liberian women’s vision of the world expanded since the end of Liberia’s war in 2003 and Johnson Sirleaf’s rise to power. As a child she witnessed the beginning of the conflict that tore Liberia apart. At nine years old – alone – she jumped on a ship headed to Sierra Leone, convinced it was the only way to survive. There, she was raised in foster homes before being pushed back to Liberia by an equally brutal war that for a decade enveloped the country. Like many Liberians at the time, Williams believed that after Liberia’s election of Charles Taylor, currently incarcerated for war crimes in The Hague, there would be some semblance of order and stability.
Williams covered police at The Patriot and studied mass communications at university while raising her first child. After surviving fierce fighting in Monrovia in 2003, she became one of the two most senior women in Liberian news – the other being Fatoumata Fofana, newsroom chief of The Observer – and one of the most esteemed reporters in the industry.
Wade Williams on assignment in Monrovia
But Williams, 31, aggressively fought entrenched sexism to win respect. Her past three years at Liberia’s leading muckraking daily newspaper, FrontPageAfrica, have proved challenging, with some of her male colleagues hesitant to accept her role as a newsroom leader.
“Some of them put up a fight because they felt that I shouldn’t have been there,” Williams told me. “They thought, ‘She’s too young, how can a small girl be my editor? How can a woman be my editor?’… Over the years they have come now to realize I mean business.”
AN AGGRESSIVE BREED
Sexism continues to hinder the advancement of female journalists, said Peter Quaqua, president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL).
“A few women have been able to withstand it and overcome it,” he said. “Too many of the men feel that it is a lazy job that the women will do and that they would rather go for the soft stories.”
But Elizabeth Hoff, the first female managing editor of a Liberian newspaper and first woman to be elected president of the PUL, said a lot has changed since she worked in journalism. Hoff, who now serves as deputy information minister, remained an editor throughout the heat of the war and Operation Octopus, one of the worst assaults launched by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia on Monrovia, in 1992. She said many women left the profession after the 1980 military coup that ousted and killed then-president William R. Tolbert. They also left during the subsequent war, fearing for their safety. Those who stayed on fought sexism, often struggling to win respect from men.
The new generation of female journalists are much more assertive and committed, Hoff said.
“There still is (sexism) but women are able to stand up to it,” she said. “This breed is more aggressive than what we had before.”
Williams said “women run the show” at her publication, with she and others including Mae Azango and Tecee Boley winning international accolades for their reporting on social justice and human rights. All three are fellows at New Narratives, an organization that led reporting efforts to expose abuse of Liberian women and girls over the past three years.
Like elsewhere in the world, ambition among women complicates relationships with men, according to Williams.
“They just want you to be submissive,” she said. “They feel threatened that if a woman works and earns more money there will be no respect for him in the home. Here, the men want to make the decisions and have the final say.”
“For me it’s a bit awkward,” Williams added.
CHILD RAPE “ALARMING”
A culture that favors men is undeniable in Liberia, where financially secure women are still the exception. Many women and girls continue to struggle with violence and sexual assault.
A recent report by the United Nations and Liberia’s gender ministry examined reasons for high rates of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. It argued that despite women’s participation in armed combat and newfound roles as family breadwinners in refugee camps, there has been “no discernible shift in gender identities and ideologies” from pre- to post-war Liberia. The report also said high levels of violence against women were exacerbated by the war, but that structural inequalities previously existed.
Today, 92% of females treated for rape in clinics throughout Liberia are under the age of 18, according to a 2011 Doctors Without Borders report. Of 1,500 females treated in Monrovia clinics who were surveyed for the report, 40% were younger than 12 years old, while 10% were under five.
During her annual state of the nation address in January, Johnson Sirleaf described the rise in gender-based violence and child rape as “alarming” and called for the adoption of a domestic violence law by the Liberian legislature.
Moreover, despite free and compulsory education, young girls often sell their bodies to cover additional education fees and male teachers demand sex for better or even passing grades – an issue that plagues all levels of schooling through university. A survey by the nongovernmental organization ActionAid Liberia found that 85% of female students at three universities were sexually harassed or engaged in transactional sex for grades.
STRUGGLING IN THE SLUMS
Among the jumble of rusty, zinc roofs and structures that make up West Point, Monrovia’s largest slum, I met a 14-year-old girl I will call Olivia. She embodies the ongoing challenges for Liberia’s post-war generation of girls. She did not know her parents, instead raised by a cast of strangers.
Her face was small and delicate. Her hair feathered, and her form short and thin. Her bra was stuffed and propped up on her tiny ribcage – covered by a pastel pink T-shirt with a heart and ‘Cheer YMCA’ written in white. She sat with me in her tiny room opposite a thin and soggy foam mattress she shared with three other women.
Olivia is one among many young girls in the community who hang around bars and video clubs at night waiting to ‘cut jopu’, or barter their bodies for food or some money. The culture of transactional sex is a sad legacy of the war, when young girls became ‘girlfriends’ of generals and soldiers to secure access to food and other material goods, said Rosanna Shaack, director of Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness, which runs a school for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
Looking down at her interlaced fingers and small, rough-cut nails coated with chipped black nail polish, Olivia described how she survived since she was twelve. “Have sex with men,” she said. “They give you money to eat. Sometimes I put up with somebody on the road, they carry me to their house and I sleep and at day break and I move from there.”
I ask her how many girls there are like her in West Point. “We are plenty,” she said.
Outside of the capital, rural women have remarkably low literacy rates in comparison with their male counterparts, with only 26% able to read and write compared to 60% of rural men.
Moreover, female genital cutting (FGC) is common within the traditional Sande societies that are prevalent in certain areas of the country. The practice remains a taboo subject, as demonstrated when Williams’ colleague, Mae Azango, received death threats for hercontroversial reports. Weeks after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to ban female genital mutilation at the end of 2012, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Blamo Nelson, said that anyone found to force FGC on a girl or woman would be prosecuted. The president also declared February 6 to be a day for “Intensifying Efforts for Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.”
Despite efforts by authorities to close secret society schools — which promote FGC — and provide vocational training to zoes, women who earn their living on the practice, FGC continues even in the capital.
“People are still doing it secretly in Monrovia,” said Azango, who continues to report on the issue.
FIGHTING MALE DOMINATION
Liberia’s cultural traditions remain the biggest challenge to the pursuit of gender equality, Hoff said.
“Traditionally women in our society are not supposed to be heard. There are certain things they are not supposed to do. I think if we break away from those cultural norms, like we are beginning to do, that is the only way.”
On Capitol Hill in Monrovia, the political arena is still dominated by vociferous and often belligerent men, even though women hold senior positions in governing bodies. Korto Williams, the Liberian Country Director of ActionAid, said the assertion of women’s leadership has faced resistance from Liberian men who feel the emphasis on women and their rights disempowers men.
Repeated calls by senators like Howard-Taylor for legislators to pass a Gender Equity Bill introduced in 2010 have been unheeded. The bill calls for mandatory 30% representation of women in political parties and appointed and elected positions. Currently, only five out of 30 national senators are women, and women’s overall representation in the legislature dropped slightly after the 2011 election to around 10%, according to the gender and development minister, Julia Duncan-Cassell.
Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of the former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, said Johnson Sirleaf’s support for the bill foreshadows a greater push for women’s participation in politics and decision-making ahead of future elections, and that Johnson Sirleaf’s rise to the presidency broke down barriers for Liberian women in the political sphere.
“I think in the next few years a lot more will be done to get women on board,” Howard-Taylor said from her tiled office, decorated with ornate drapes, fake roses and pictures of Jesus and Barack Obama on the walls. “We have broken the glass ceiling with having a female president and the sky is the limit.”
The former acting Mayor of Monrovia, Mary Broh, who recently resigned after a run in with the legislature and public backlash, said fear of women’s leadership amongst the male-dominated political establishment remains a barrier. Broh is a controversial figure in Monrovia, with supporters lauding her hands-on style and hard work to clean up the city while critics claim she exploited her close relationship with the president and abused the city’s poor. Johnson Sirleaf recently re-nominated Broh for the position, a move that was strongly resisted by the senate and house of representatives.
In a high-backed black swivel chair behind a broad dark wood table, Broh flipped through a file on her political nemesis, Solomon George. The representative from the opposition party the Congress for Democratic Change was captured on video earlier this year pledging, “I’ll be shitting on her,” during a meeting in Minnesota.
“It is a political culture where they just want to clamp down on women’s leadership,” Broh said in an interview with me before her resignation. “It’s the women’s leadership that they are afraid of. The society says, ‘Why is the woman doing this or that? Her place is in the kitchen.’”
Broh said she looks to the Arab world for positive examples of women’s leadership.
“Women are out there. You can even see the Arab women , that revolution of the Arab women. I admire it,” she said. “It better happen here. We better wake up and smell the coffee.”
But Broh does not support the gender equity bill because she thinks it could breed perception that women haven’t earned their place in the political arena. She also said it sets the bar too low – at only 30% required women’s political participation.
“We should have that legislature flooded with women,” she said. “I want to see 60% of women flooding that house, the senate as well as representatives.”
BUILDING ON GAINS
Women who are part of the growing push to improve the status of Liberian women say there are huge challenges ahead.
“People take for granted that we elected Africa’s first female president,” said peace activist and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee. “People assume that all is well” – a challenge, given that government and civil society support for women’s and girls’ issues still greatly lacks, she said.
“There is a now a greater awareness (about) what women need to do to get to where they need to get to, the question of support is key,” she said.
Williams hopes women can build on the small gains they already made.
“Women are still struggling for total political freedom and there is still a high degree of uncertainty about our future as it relates to our role in the political decision-making of our country,” she said. “Many of us fear that this honeymoon about the women’s movement might just be over too soon.”
Back in West Point, it is clear why women need to keep making gains. Olivia headed out as night fell to the congested main road to hustle. She stood under dim lights outside video clubs and in front of posters for Nigerian films about sex, witchcraft and death, hoping to find new customers. Olivia is no iconic powerbroker, but her daily battle underscores the challenges that loom large in the pursuit of equality for Liberia’s women and girls. Even still, there is much hope the march forward will continue.