MONROVIA, Montserrado – After a protest aimed at demanding that the administration take more robust action to end the waves of violence against women, President George Weah has assured the women of Liberia that he will consider their request.
Weah made the pledge at his Foreign Affairs office on Wednesday when he received a petition from a group of women representing more than 10 civil society organizations.
The women had gathered for a mass sit-in before the Foreign Ministry to reiterate their demands. They said they were taking the action because of the continuing and pervasive violence against women, such as the recent attacks on female candidates in the Montserrado senatorial and representative by-elections.
Through their spokesperson Mmenbeydo Joah-Harell, the women petitioned the president to take a stronger stance to protect the rights of women, increase the number of women in government, and provide security in Montserrado’s 15th district, where female candidate Telia Urey of the All Liberian Party recently reported a number of attacks against her and supporters by supporters of Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change. In that electoral violence case, there has been no police arrest of the perpetrators.
Frances Greaves, chairperson of the National Civil Society Council of Liberia, who participated in the sit-in and spoke to The Bush Chicken in her personal capacity, said current statistics show that violence against women has continued to increase since the end of the Liberian civil war.
The Liberia Spotlight Initiative has reported that more than 2,000 cases of gender-based violence were filed with authorities in 2018. The report reveals that more than 60 percent of the cases were classified as rapes.
However, the report clarified that the numbers do not capture the true state of violence meted against women and girls in the country because many more cases are not reported or are settled out of court.
Greaves called the statistics “alarming,” adding that such violations were among the root causes of the nearly two decades of civil war that ended in 2003, following advocacies from the women of Liberia.
“As women of Liberia, we thought it necessary to step out and say enough is enough. We want an end to violence in Liberia and ensure that the rule of law must prevail,” she said. “You have women in political space that are being violated.”
Greaves said despite actions to ensure that the legal infrastructure to protect women exist – such as a recent passing of the Domestic Violence Act – implementation has lagged.
“You cannot say you’re doing this, and the mechanism of implementation is limited. We need to strengthen the system,” she noted. “Criminal Court E is there, but Criminal Court E cannot perform the task to the standards. So, we’re even calling on the chief justice to increase [the capacity of] Criminal Court E and have at least three or two judges there that can fast-track the cases.”
She further noted while Liberia is a signatory to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, which focuses on the protection of women, promotion of women issues and political participation, women in Liberia are not really feeling the impact of the provision.
She emphasized the need for women to be protected at all times in order to ensure that they can freely participate in political activities.
Ora Barclay Keller, another member of the protest, said Liberian women were tired with the continuous violations of their rights: “Our mothers are dying, our sisters are dying. We are afraid to live in our communities; we are not feeling safe.”
“We cannot live in a society where we will see the police and we are afraid to call on the police. We cannot live in a society where police will stay there and watch violence and there is nothing done,” she added.
“We cannot live a society where violence [is] being perpetrated against women and no one to be called to justice. We cannot live in a society where our girls cannot go to school freely, only because they are afraid that they might be raped. We are afraid for our lives and our safety.”
She said, for too long women have elected men to public offices, but did not seek to be elected, but now that they are rising up to compete with male politicians to seek elected positions, they are being intimidated in the exercise of their constitutional rights.
“We, too, want to be seated at the table so that women’s issues can be placed on the table so that people can also know that we, too, are humans. These simple human rights are being taken away from us,” she noted.
In October 2018, the president conferred on himself the title of Liberia’s ‘Feminist-in-Chief,’ and affirmed his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of the feministic ideals that guarantee the rights and wellbeing of women.
However, many have questioned his quest for the title when his administration has not done enough to advance the rights of women. Delphine Morris of the Women in Peace Building Network called on the president to demonstrate he deserves the title by standing up for the protection of women and promotion of women issues, including political participation.
Since his ascendance to the presidency, Weah has only appointed 2 of the 17 heads of ministries as women – less than 12 percent. They are Health Minister Wilhelmina Jallah and Gender Minister Williametta Piso Saydee-Tarr. This reflects a drastic reduction following Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became the first woman to be democratically elected as president of an African nation. Of the 81 ministers ever appointed to serve in Sirleaf’s government, 22 percent were women, although the percentage varied at various times.
Other African countries have made more progress in appointing women as heads of ministries. Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has appointed women as heads of 10 of the countries 20 ministries. South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa has also appointed women to half of his cabinet posts. In Rwanda, where the parliament was already composed of 61 percent women, President Paul Kagame also allocated half of his cabinet posts to women.
Wednesday’s protest was not the first time Liberian women have taken to the streets to demand the government take action towards ending violence and abuse against women.
A #WeAreUnprotected campaign has been ongoing since last year and featured a one day protest in November to demand an end to injustice and all forms of violence against women and girls.
Paramount Young Women Initiative’s executive coordinator, Facia Harris, disclosed that Wednesday’s sit-in was another call for action by the government to save and protect the dignity of women.
“This is a continuous effort; this is not new. We hope that it will be the last time we have to come under the rain to talk about our rights as women,” Harris said.
The president reiterated his commitment to the promotion and protection of women and girls against sexual gender-based violence as well as gender inequality.
“I want to assure residents of Montserrado County, particularly voters and candidates of District 15, as well as all Liberians and the world that there would be a free, fair, and transparent election anytime under my administration,” he said.
He also promised to increase security presence in the 15th district re-run of disputed precincts announced by the National Elections Commission.
The Liberian leader further assured the women of a timely and prompt investigation into the most recently reported violence in the 15th district, where female candidate Telia Urey reported being attacked along with her supporters.
Featured photo by Gbatemah Senah