Feminism's Vital Role in Rebuilding Liberia

As a female president tries to address the nation's myriad postwar problems, regular women find their voices -- and the strength to move on.

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MONROVIA, LIBERIA -- If you've seen the award-winning 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, then this will be a familiar story: How a group of Liberian women -- Muslims and Christians, young and not so young, long grown weary from the terrors of war -- conspired to wage peace in their country. How they staged sit-ins outside the Presidential Palace, stalked stalled peace talks in Ghana, and withheld sex until their husbands saw the light and pledged to wage peace, too.

Then there is the not-so-familiar story: how these women -- in particular, the foot soldiers of the peace movement -- struggle to keep the momentum going seven years after the end of the nation's most recent war, now that treaties have been signed, the dead have been buried and an "Iron Lady" has been elected president. How do you keep going in the aftermath, when jobs are scarce, the country remains bombed out and there are so many rape victims to tend to? How do you keep hope alive? Is there room for feminism in a country that's struggling mightily to rebuild itself? And how do you engage the young ones, convince them that feminism has a place in their lives?

"The biggest issue now," says Lindorah Howard-Diawara, national network coordinator of Women in Peacebuilding (WIPNET) of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), "is economic empowerment. How do we create wealth? We need something where women can see themselves differently: 'Well, war may have happened, but I've become somebody.' If a woman has money, she's not looking for a man to take care of her. She's able to make sound decisions for herself."

Today Howard-Diawara, along with Etweda "Sugars" Cooper, the doyenne of the Liberian women's movement, is visiting the Paynesville chapter of WIPNET. Here, every Thursday morning, the Paynesville women, many of them featured in Pray the Devil Back to Hell, congregate in the Peace Hut, an open-air, thatched-roof affair tucked along the dusty outskirts of Monrovia.

It is here that these market women gather to meditate, pray and talk about how to keep the peace. Their worry: The issues that brought on civil war in the first place -- ethnic divisions, rampant corruption, greed -- still exist. If they don't keep their eye on those root causes, if they don't continue to advocate for peace, a return to civil war remains a distinct possibility. "As women," Howard-Diawara says, "we are not going to sit and see ourselves go back to that."

The women of the Paynesville chapter have other visitors besides Howard-Diawara and Cooper: a contingent of journalists from the International Reporting Project, and they are singing their welcome, a call and response that is at once familiar and foreign.

"Tomorrow is a new day," sings Margaret Malley, the group's president, a stocky woman whose right arm is cut off at the elbow, the result of a wartime car accident.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow," the others join in, hands clapping, shaking gourd instruments. The Peace Hut rollicks with rhythm and sound.

Tomorrow may be a new day, but for these women, right now is of pressing concern. The unemployment rate in this West African country is staggeringly high -- as much as 85 percent. And yet everyone works, to some extent or another.

"We have nothing," Awato Tokpa, one of the market women, says. "We have no money. We don't have help. We keep on praying to God for God to help."