"Their courage will inspire me every day"
In February The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation arranged an exchange between activists in South Caucasus and Liberia. Here Armenian activist Lara Aharonian shares her personal memories of the trip to Liberia:
“When The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation announced the study tour/exchange for women activists from South Caucasus to travel and meet women peace activists in Liberia, most of us didn’t know much about the place. While preparing for the trip, we were asked almost the same questions by people around us; Liberia? Where is that? You mean Lebanon? Libya? Where exactly? No one had really heard about this country down there somewhere.
A moment to reflect
All I knew about Liberia was that they elected a woman president; the first African country to do so, and that the women there stopped the war. That was enough for me to jump on this opportunity, filling out the necessary forms to meet these women.
Sometimes when you work too long with issues that matter to you, it is very difficult to take a moment to reflect on the whole process you are involved in. You don’t see the solutions as clearly as you used too. And it happens that you loose a little faith in what you are doing, since the results take so long to be visible, and people often are keen to discourage you along the way.
That is why I needed Liberia personally. I needed to detach myself from my own work in peace building and women’s rights and be in a different place, hear and see women succeeding with these types of processes. I needed to reflect on my own work through their work and on the challenges they face, to better understand my own reality.
From winter to warmth
Several months after the initial call, I left cold and wintery Armenia to be greeted in warm and life changing Liberia, together with three of my colleagues from Azerbaijan and Georgia: Pervana, Nino and Alla.
The road taking us from the airport to the city center was a revelation. We passed through different communities on the way and got a glimpse of the people living there; their houses and surroundings, the children running everywhere. Pervana and I, completely amazed by this place who looked so surreal to us, couldn’t help but taking pictures of every scene, wanting to record every single emotion to be able to grasp it all later.
But the real journey began the next day. Our first visit took us to WONGOSOL‘s office; an umbrella organization for over 80 women’s organizations in the country. We were greeted by the director, Ms Marpue Speare, and Ms Frances Greaves from the member organization Voice of the Voiceless.
Our first question “How did you do it, how did you stop the war?” engaged our hosts in a passionate description of the past decade of women’s struggle in Liberia:
In an environment of general fatigue from the on-going decades of war and conflict in the country, some 15-20 women activists stood up and said that they had had enough of this! They began slowly, by talking to other women, going from hut to hut to raise awareness – first among their immediate families and relatives, then continuing with friends and acquaintances and so on. Their message was very clear and united all women, regardless of faith or ethnic background:
- Stop the rape of women,
- Stop the rape of the children/daughters,
- Stop sending sons and husbands to war to be killed.
- No one disagreed with these principles as women, mothers or sisters, so our numbers grew and grew until it reached over 10 000 women. Even the wife of the president joined, Frances told us.
After the last wave of armed conflict in the late 1990s, peace negotiations were set up in Ghana. Women were excluded from the peace talks, but they protested and picketed until two women were allowed into the peace hall as observers.
During the negotiations, these women observed how the men were coming together, drinking beer, and then going back to their camps continuing the war. The women shared their observations with women’s activists and groups and the whole community mobilized for the last peace meetings. They pressured the men to come to an agreement of a cease fire and did not allow them to leave the hall until then, or they would undress (which is a huge insult in Liberian culture, to have women take off their clothes in a public place). They also used abstinence from any sexual activity.
- Wives and concubines together told the men, we have no body for sex for you if you don’t ensure the peace for us and our children, Frances recalled laughing.
- And it worked, the men realized that the women were up to something and that they needed to resolve this issue quickly!
Peace huts still active
Later, the activists at MARWOPNET recalled the same events, adding interesting details on how the women had had the courage to face their own president, and how they flew to the peace meeting and imposed their presence on the participants during the official negotiations, to make sure that peace would be secured.
Then we visited WIPNET’s (Women in Peace Network) peace huts, both in Monrovia and in the rural area of Kataka. Through these field visits, I understood the scope of their dedication and work. More than 40 women greeted us with chants and dances and music. They were happy to recieve visitors and grateful that we appreciated their work. They told us over and over again how they united to put pressure on their government to sign the peace treaty. Now they run mediation community courts in the huts, to resolve conflicts concerning domestic violence, husbands abandoning their wives and quarrels. Dressed in their uniforms with WIPNET white t-shirts, they looked so proud and powerful.
WIPNET was the first local women’s peace movement uniting thousands of members across Liberia and working in over 20 peace huts in rural communities. After the war, they continued their work, making sure that the peace was kept, monitoring elections and trials and providing adult literacy courses for mothers. They also run workshops to help women develop their economical skills. The most important part was that people respect them and listen to their advices. Children follow them everywhere and even men support their efforts.
Other meetings followed, providing even more food for thoughts – from the Association of Female Lawyers, to community center interfaith dialogue, to finally an interesting encounter with the newly elected Gender minister. The program was full and gave a complete overview, in a very short period of time, of the amazing work of Liberian women in ensuring the peace in their communities.
Unbelievable daily struggle
But I think it was at the end of the trip, during our visit to one of the most run-down slum areas in the world, West Point in Monrovia, that I truly understood the power of women and their unbelievable daily struggle to keep themselves and their communities safe. The streets that took us to there were very crowded, poor and overwhelmingly depressive, but the West Point women community center activists who greeted us with big smiles, reminded us to concentrate on the important things; their courage and dedication in changing their community.
During the bus ride back to the hotel, I was still thinking of all the work of these amazing women. I was wondering how they were able to take so much pain and resist so much violence. Rape statistics are very high in Liberia as well as the numbers on gender-based violence. Yet these women find a way to step by step reach out to the communities, advance their cause and support each other.
Our journey took us to another continent, another way of life. Before arriving in Monrovia, we were so immersed in our own problems, our own issues, our challenges as women. Liberia gave us a sudden awakening and put things in perspective. I saw poverty, devastation, violence and people struggling to survive, but what I took back with me was the power of women. The amazing courage of each and every one of them will stay forever in my mind and will inspire me every day, on the challenging road towards peace building in my own region.”
Women’s Resource Center, Armenia
Updated in: 2013-03-22