By: Josh Perry
For women in the United States, the rights of today were achieved by courageous women with a cause and a drive to see change. These women came, and continue to come, in all shapes and colors. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were among the first to begin the United States women’s movement; Rosa Parks was an essential part to the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights movement; Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman nominated and confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court; Hillary Clinton was a strong candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for President in 2008 and is now Secretary of State under the Obama administration; and lastly, Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic man or woman to be confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. These women know what passion is and how to achieve equality. African women, arguably, have the same drive and determination for change; however, in an overly patriarchal culture, outspoken women fear reprisal, degradation, or worse. The Liberian case study is worth all attention. Women who were directly affected by the civil war related injustices used the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as their platform to demand, among other things, quality, justice, and freedom of speech. The Republic of Liberia is located on the Western coast of Africa bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, the inhabitants of Liberia were former U.S. slaves who dominated the indigenous population through political and economic repression. The Americo-Liberian government was politically dominate until April 1980 when Samuel Doe led a coup to overthrow then president, William Tolbert, and ascended to president. Even though the indigenous population despised repression, Doe’s assumption to presidency came with an era of oppression, dictatorship, and human rights abuses. The political instability continued as Charles Taylor, Doe’s long time Procurement Chief, led an insurgent group to overthrow and kill him. In an attempt to achieve peace and stability, Liberia passed 13 peace agreements followed by temporary ceasefires, but civil violence and in-fighting continued until 2003. Finally, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was agreed to in Accra, Ghana, which discontinued the civil war and created a transitional and fluid national government for two years. The 2005 Liberian election presented the country with its first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in conjunction with the establishment of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was mandated to seek national unity, reconciliation, and justice.
From the advent of the TRC, women decisively became involved in making sure the TRC included gender related issues. They knew that despite the fact women are the majority of human rights abuse victims in armed conflicts in Africa, women have been excluded from participating in peace negotiations and decision making on the way forward to secure and create a safe and prosperous environment where they can raise their children. Liberian women’s organizations made it clear that there could not be any real truth telling and real reconciliation if women were excluded from the TRC. As a result, the TRC collected written records of first-hand accounts retold by women.
On July 31, 2008 the TRC trained 42 women, from all political sub-divisions, to sensitize and encourage more women to testify at the TRC. As women were being trained, there were simultaneous workshops for men, whose female loved ones would be testifying, equipping them with tools to give proper support to the women. These dialogues were a major part to the project entitled, “Evaluating and Re-Enforcing Women’s Participation In Transitional Justice and Governance” in October 2008. More dialogues were planned throughout the year and once completed the women in these communities came together to mobilize and encourage other women to participate in creating and consolidating peace in Liberia. As the climax of the project neared, the National Conference for Women adopted recommendations about human rights violations and forwarded them to the TRC to be included within the final report. They recommended that:
- the warlords and defunct warring factions be sentenced to jail or hard labor,
- a war crimes tribunal for Liberia be created,
- warlords and people with criminal records be barred from public office, and
- child soldiers be given immunity from crimes committed.
The ability for women to learn and teach other women, with the support from women’s organizations, has laid a strong, successful foundation for women in Liberia. During the dialogues in 2008 Liberian women strongly supported access to participation in all levels of government, pushed for recognition of knowledge gaps, and proposed more access to education for women. The persistence of Liberian women justifies the increased participation of women in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. TRC Chairman Counselor Jerome Verdier praised them for their immense contribution to the Liberian peace process saying that “‘because of their roles, peace has now been restored to the country.’” Because of women’s determination, and the recognition of their contribution at all levels of society, Liberia has made forward progress in leaving the problem of gender inequality at a distance.