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Special Feature

Beyond the Outrage: Prioritizing Women Rights is Critical for Liberia’s Development Agenda

The Liberia Feminist Forum and other women and human right groups in Liberia are saddened by the limited attention being paid to the alarming rate of violence against women and girls. Disassociations by state and political leaderships and outbursts by policy makers are devoid of their role and responsibilities as duty bearers, reinforcing the marginalization of women and their “issues” to temporary sideshows. We are therefore calling on the government and stakeholders to recognize and support the full realization of women rights in Liberia.

The gradual disintegration of women’s rights in Liberia is a result of multiple issues including systems of oppression and exclusion and the continuous perception and practice that put women’s rights in an optional category.  

For far too long, we have seen women’s rights engaged as a side issue.
A donor funded issue.
An issue that 10 men can discuss in 10 minute slots in one day.
A women’s group issue.
A three year project.
A trendy thing that our leaders put on their agenda twice every decade.

Over the recent weeks, this disintegration has unfolded with horrific stories of domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse compounded by the abuse of power and resources.
Christine Dennis Freeman brutally attacked and severely injured by her husband; Doris Yahn fatally shot and killed by her husband for simply not giving him sufficient food;
A 13 year old raped and impregnated by a lawmaker;
A 16 year old raped and impregnated by a current government official;
42 year old woman gang raped to death after attending a popular musician’s funeral program.

What we are witnessing in 2017 is the continuum of the denial of rights, dignity and humanity of women and girls in Liberia.A donors’ issue hence the lack of accountability and investment in the access to justice system.

This starts as early with marginalization of young girls and harmful traditional practices such as FGM and forced marriage. Yet, we continue to hear how FGM is our culture and our leaders promote a pro-FGM judge to oversee the very court responsible for addressing sexual violence.

We still have no state forensic lab to enable swift prosecution for sexual and gender base violence (SGBV) cases and perpetrators continue to walk away with impunity. Gender and justice services at community and county level are understaffed, ill capacitated and without logistics. Women walk two to three hours to the nearest police station to report domestic violence but the police are unable to investigate because there is no transportation or fuel.

This violation continues, across all spaces and sectors of our country.When young women are trafficked and subjected to slavery, sexual assault and rape;When young women and girls are sexually harassed and exploited in schools and universities across the country (sex for grades);
When women are denied their rights to land under customary provisions;
When women continue to die giving birth due to poor and or lack of medical care;
When women rights activists and feminists who challenge the status quo are marginalized, excluded and labeled;
When women make up more than 50% of the agriculture and informal sectors, yet Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI) funds are diverted to businesses owned by finance staff or close contacts;

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We are often reminded in these disassociations and outbursts that women are also at the helm of these institutions and part of the leadership (executive, legislature, and judicial). So, let’s do the math. How many women are in those positions and what is the ratio to their male counterparts? One may also ask, don’t we have a system to address crime and protect Liberian citizens? So, who has leadership within that system? Police, courts, community leaders, budget makers…Are all of these stakeholders women?

The violence against women, girls and people of different sexual orientations in our country is rooted in a strong patriarchal society that has promoted the oppression and exclusion of women, girls and people of different sexual orientations through the normalization of gender roles. This means that the demand for action is also on those same women, girls and marginalized communities to fix it while the privileged ones sit and watch. We have institutionalized this to the point that our national development strategy treats the oppression and exclusion of women and girls as the ‘soft issues’ and gender equality as a thing to be ‘encouraged’.

We all know about “boys to boys and girls to girls”.Men speak about the oil blocks and spend time on endorsements…making presidents. Women are supposed to stick to their daughters’ and regulate their body parts and the other ‘soft issues’. Pun intended.

Men engage in debates on allocation of state resources and their political aspirations and women are relegated to dancers, cooks and “angels”. Political hierarchies and national security discussions rarely include women at the table. National “security” plans are decided by all men while SGBV is a “Gender Ministry issue”. We cheer on a national all men’s conference on addressing gender based violence and promoting gender equality but seek women outrage to tackle the very same issues. We promote men as “He for She” champions but then demand women rights groups to solve the challenges that affect women. Instead of a comprehensive sexual education across our schools, we promote moral education because girls need to be concerned about how they dress than boys who rape or abuse them. When lawyers call on women activists and feminists to solve rape issues, are they speaking from their professional experience or the patriarchal position that says men must not deal with vagina issues unless they are having sex or in the locker rooms? That is a serious question.

So beyond the current outrage, we need to hold our government accountable. This is not an NGO program or a donor project. This is a human right issue that our government has made commitments to. Beyond the outbursts, we need to examine how disassociations by our leaders and duty bearers reinforce the marginalization of women and their “issues” to temporary sideshows. Beyond the outrage, let us also begin to interrogate why we have a sociological imperative that says women and girls must suffer rights violation to keep society ‘stable’? And please…let it not be in two hour all male conferences.

Liberia has signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1984) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. We acknowledge the efforts made by the government thus far including the establishment of the Human Rights Division at the Ministry of Justice, the Women and Children Protection Unit of the Liberian National Police and the Independent Human Rights Commission. However, with all these good structures, lack of political will to enforce existing legal frameworks and adequate funding limit their full implementation. There is now a law on Gender and Sexually Based Violence (2008) providing for a special court to try sexual violence crimes and a draft Domestic Violence Bill in the senate. The goals of equality, development, peace and social justice can only be achieved with the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective in all levels of decision making. We have identified five main issues we hope to see prioritized to ensure Liberia’s development is inclusive and sustainable, particularly:

 Swift investigation into the national current cases especially those involving public officials as this government’s commitment to ending the culture of impunity for perpetrators of sexual and gender based violence.
 Non-confirmation and withdrawal of the nomination of Serena F. Garlawolu as a resident judge for the Criminal Court “E”. We seek a replacement dedicated to protecting women and girls from all forms of sexual and gender based violence and human rights violations.
 Full implementation of CEDAW and harmonization of customary and statutory laws and practices to protect women, girls and key populations from violence including traditional practices that affect their health and well-being; increase women’s access to own land, and participate in governance and management of resources. We specifically demand the passage of the current Domestic Violence Bill, Land Rights Act (with stronger provisions to guarantee women tenure, ownership and control); and a full ban on FGM.

 Increased investment in gender responsive public services to ensure that women and girls have opportunity to life free of violence and have access to quality health, education, and decent work. This includes specifically an increase in budgetary support to the Ministry of Justice and the Women and Children Protection Unit and county gender offices.

Full implementation of a comprehensive sexual health education program to ensure that women and young people (girls and boys) have equal access to quality and timely information and services.
Women Rights are Human Rights.

Liberian Feminist Forum ● medica liberia ● ActionAid Liberia ● Paramount Young Women Initiative

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