Women’s Role in Liberia’s Reconstruction
Countries & Regions
Women were crucial in bringing peace to Liberia and are also a critical part of the rebuilding process. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made it a priority to include women in Liberia's reconstruction: women head the ministries of commerce, justice, finance, youth and sports, and gender and development. They also comprise five of the 15 county superintendents. Still, more must be done to increase the capacity of women to take part in Liberia’s peacebuilding. On April 23, 2007, the United States Institute of Peace and the Initiative for Inclusive Security co-organized a meeting of the Liberia Working Group to discuss the role that women have played in achieving and maintaining peace in Liberia and the challenges and opportunities of participating in the reconstruction of the country. Panelists included Leymah Roberta Gbowee, executive director of the Women Peace and Security Network Africa and founder of the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), Juanita Jarrett, founding member of the Mano River Women’s Peace Network (MARWOPNET), and Waafas Ofosu-Amaah, senior gender specialist at the World Bank. This USIPeace Briefing highlights the meeting’s central points and recommendations.
The Struggle for Inclusion
During the war, women’s organizations worked tirelessly to bring warring parties to the negotiating table so that the country might achieve peace. The country now enjoys its fourth year of peace, and recently elected Africa’s first female president. It is widely noted that women voted in great numbers in the 2005 election and now comprise a significant constituency in Liberian politics. Their efforts reveal how well-coordinated grassroots movements can establish more inclusive peacebuilding practices. However, in continuing to advance the participation of women, civil society organizations today face the challenge of transitioning from a grassroots movement to a policy and advocacy group.
Women in Peacebuilding Network
The Women in Peacebuilding Network mobilized women in the early days of Liberia’s first civil war. WIPNET staged public marches in 1991 to advocate for peace and security, and by 1993, started to attend peace talks. The peace following the 1996 peace agreement and the 1997 election was short-lived. War resumed in 2000, and WIPNET intensified its efforts to mobilize women to call for peace.
A defining moment for WIPNET’s inclusion in Liberia’s peace process during the second civil war occurred when President Charles Taylor challenged them to find the rebel leaders. Proving themselves resourceful, the women funded a small delegation’s trip to Sierra Leone, where some of the rebel leaders were staying. The women arranged meetings between Taylor and the rebel leaders, earning a reputation as objective intermediaries. In 2003, because of the brutality of the war, WIPNET spearheaded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign to confront and engage the rebels directly, traveling all over the country and region. WIPNET’s involvement with the rebel leaders was instrumental in moving the disarmament process forward.
After the Accra 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, WIPNET shifted its focus from mediation to implementation. WIPNET de-mystified the peace agreement and engaged women directly in its implementation. Noticing that the CPA had no clear outline of when specific tasks would be completed, WIPNET organized a five-day workshop to identify benchmarks in the implementation of the CPA. The goal of the workshop participants was to disseminate clear information to the Liberian public—women in particular—on when certain tasks should occur, empowering civil society to be a "watchdog" over implementation of the peace agreement. Even with this knowledge, women were not welcomed into the implementation process wholeheartedly. In particular, women found themselves shut out from the disarmament process. However, when disarmament proved slower than expected, WIPNET members and other women leaders traveled to the disarmament camps themselves to meet the fighters and convince them to lay down their arms, speeding up the disarmament process.
WIPNET was also instrumental in ensuring women’s representation during the 2005 election. Initially, many women expressed indifference to voting given that government structures had never before benefited them as a group. With five days left in the registration period, many realized that market women were not registering. In response, a coalition of 200 women, led by WIPNET, provided transportation, childcare, and supervision of market stalls to allow women the means and peace of mind to leave their work and register to vote. At the end of five days, more than 7,400 women had registered to vote.
Mano River Women’s Peace Network
As Liberia embarks on consolidating peace, MARWOPNET has worked to empower women to take part in Liberia’s reconstruction. As such, some members of MARWOPNET, such as associations representing Muslim and Christian women, provide training in different trades. For example, women who received training as seamstresses have had the opportunity to obtain government contracts to sew uniforms for school children in the Bomi County area. Skills-based training not only provides tools for sustainable employment, it also helps to integrate women into the Liberian economy, thus contributing to improving gender equality in post-conflict Liberia. MARWOPNET also works to develop legal expertise to ensure the protection of women and children and representation of female rape victims in court through the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL). Recognizing that an inclusive peacebuilding and reconstruction process cannot not occur without partnerships between government, the international community, and Liberian civil society organizations, MARWOPNET has encouraged women in government to collaborate with women-focused nongovernmental organizations. Recently, the United Nations’ all-female Indian police unit met with AFELL to discuss collaborating on prosecuting rapists and seeking redress against other crimes against women.
Building Gender in a Development Framework
The World Bank is an important international partner in Liberia’s reconstruction. After placing Liberia on a non-accrual status in 19871, the World Bank reengaged in Liberia in October of 2006, simultaneously unveiling its Gender Action Plan (GAP). Within this plan, Liberia was selected as a focus country, as well as for a pilot intervention, for the Bank’s "Gender Equality as Smart Economics" plan. As a first step, the Bank undertook a rigorous gender needs assessment in order to determine the long-term needs of Liberian women. In the short term, the Bank focuses on preparing development and reconstruction plans.
The gender needs assessment conducted by the Bank revealed that women are active participants in the Liberian economy, but absent from its major sectors. The study found that women make up 53 percent of the agricultural labor force; produce 60 percent of all agricultural products in Liberia; and comprise a large number of entrepreneurs—77 percent of women are self-employed. However, the study also showed that women do not participate in the most profitable sectors, such as infrastructure, public works, cash crop farming, and mining. Therefore, to facilitate women’s participation in Liberia’s reconstruction, the GAP focuses on enabling Liberian women to take part in growth sectors, increasing Liberian women’s capacity to compete and providing access to commercial credit for women-owned businesses.
An agriculture-based pilot intervention (a Results-Based Initiative or RBI) is currently underway for women cassava farmers in Ganta, Nimba County to provide assistance with improving productivity, farming, and marketing methods. Undertaken in partnership with the Ministry of Gender and Development, UNIFEM, and the International Center for Research on Women, the initiative incorporates a quasi-experimental impact evaluation that will document results and lessons learned from the intervention. The pilot could have an important demonstration effect and yield lessons learned to inform critical components of the government of Liberia’s (GOL) emerging agricultural strategy and its gender dimensions. In addition, the ongoing agricultural assessment includes a chapter on women’s roles in agriculture that can be used to inform the development of the GOL’s agricultural strategy going forward.
The World Bank’s strategy in Liberia recognizes the importance of gender equality. Yet, the challenge rests in integrating the GAP with the Bank’s traditional development pillars and large-scale lending, grants, and technical assistance programs. Additionally, it is imperative that the GAP diligently monitors its pilot projects, to provide the Bank with information on women’s participation and accomplishments, in order to strengthen the inclusion of initiatives that promote gender-equality.
The Way Forward
The women in Liberia have made indisputable contributions to achieving peace. Yet their work is far from over. In order to ensure long-lasting stability, women must be supported both domestically and internationally. Although the election of a female president is a clear manifestation of women’s ascending role in Liberia’s political milieu, the panelists recognized that a woman in the presidency does not automatically guarantee women greater roles in positions of leadership or in Liberia’s reconstruction. Participants therefore proposed a number of recommendations to increase the inclusion of women in Liberia’s reconstruction:
- Train women and civil society organizations as policy advocates. Women and civil society organizations must receive training to transition from grass-roots mobilizing activities to advocacy and development work. Women were extremely instrumental in bringing about peace in 2003. Now they must develop skills to work effectively in a democratic setting. However, capacity training is not enough; improving basic education and life skills will also enhance women’s ability to influence policy.
- Empower women economically. As Liberia rebuilds, there is an opportunity to include policies that will provide equal access to markets for men and women. In particular, economic policies should promote investment in female farmers; provide opportunities to take part in infrastructure development, cash crops, forestry, mining, and public works; and increase access to commercial financing programs.
- Change perceptions of traditional gender roles. Contemporary Liberian society must begin to recognize women as leaders and entrepreneurs, rather than seeing them only at the margins of commerce and politics.
1. World Bank, "The World Bank Program in Liberia," December 2005
This USIPeace Briefing was written by Dorina Bekoe, a senior program officer in the in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, and Christina Parajon, a program assistant in the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations, at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.
The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.