Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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?

Advertisement

"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."

Advertisement

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."

Adds Mama Kolubah Johnson, a baby-faced 43-year-old grandmother who teaches basic reading skills to the other women, "The majority of us are hand to mouth. Some of us want to do business, but there is no finance."

Advertisement

And yet despite their frustration, these women are optimistic, fierce and funny. After all, they discovered their own power when they took on deposed President Charles Taylor and the rebel groups. They forced both sides to commit to peace negotiations, and stopped a war. There is power in that.

They know what they can do. They just want a chance to do it.

Now a woman is running the country, the first female head of state on the continent. There is power in that, too.

Advertisement

"It gives the women high respect," Johnson says. "Before, the men thought we couldn't make it without them. Now more women want to be in political offices."

A Maternal Figure Made of Iron

Indeed, it's hard to find a more potent symbol of female capability than President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was elected in a runoff election in 2005. With her no-nonsense style, she's inspired many Liberians, even as she has her detractors, who complain that she hasn't done enough to get the country back on track after its two civil wars.

Advertisement

Billboards everywhere feature her beaming countenance, arms outstretched, reminding Liberians that they are all one. There's a reason she's called "Mama Ellen" here. It's as if the nation, battered from years of male-induced war, couldn't wait for a mother figure to come in and set things right.

And clearly, this 72-year-old grandmother isn't afraid to scold those who don't live up to her expectations. As native daughter Helena Cooper observes in World Affairs Journal, "A life spent talking tough to the lunatics around her, from Samuel K. Doe, the army sergeant who took control of the country during a bloody coup in 1980 and later jailed Sirleaf, to Charles Taylor, the former president whose decade-long rampage led to blood diamond–fueled wars in three countries, has left Sirleaf with a take-no-prisoners style … " Last month Sirleaf lived up to her other nickname — the Iron Lady — when she abruptly put her entire ministerial cabinet in an extended time-out, ostensibly to investigate corruption.

Right now she's sitting in a conference room in the executive mansion, flanked by two Liberian flags, dressed in her trademark head wrap; long, traditional dress; and pearls. She's talking about when she'll put her remaining suspended ministers back to work, why she'll put her record up against deposed Charles Taylor's any day and why she's breaking her promise to be a one-term president in order to run for re-election in 2011. Too many problems yet to resolve, and too little time. She's smart and quick on the draw, forthright and open without being warm. She is also acutely aware of the symbolism of her role as the first female president.

Advertisement

As we talk to her, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the dichotomy that I see in this country: Everyone it seems, even the men — especially the men — gives much lip service to the power of women, how women should be respected. There's almost a cheerleader aspect to this; it's all very, "Yay! Women!" And yet the rates of rape and gender-based violence in this country are epidemic.

So I ask Sirleaf, "How do you account for this? Is it only the older women who can command respected, while the younger women have to watch their back?"

"There's a growing respect for women generally," she tells me. "As I hear it, even young girls are empowered. They're more emboldened. But the preying on women remains the dominant part of male culture. We have to address that more aggressively."

Women Have a Complex Status Here

Such a culture of sexual violence is the legacy of two brutal civil wars, where rape was used as a weapon, a way to dismantle familial bonds, to humiliate, to dominate. It's an issue with which the country is acutely, painfully aware, thanks to public information programs broadcast via community radio.

Advertisement

This heightened awareness is evident in the billboards decrying rape, in the sexual-abuse clinics dotting up around the country, in the newly implemented gender-violence court that prosecutes sex crimes. (One Liberian female journalist, Siatta Scott Johnson, creative director of Smart Media Liberia, is producing a documentary about rape in her home country.) 

But there's something else going on here, too, beyond the focus on rectifying sexual violence. I'm told that female circumcision is still prevalent in the more remote villages. Then there's this: So many of the young women I've met here, many of them university students and activists, are single mothers struggling on their own.

"The enrollment of girls in schools starts out high," says Angeline Siaway, a 28-year-old activist and farmer who lives in Bong County, in the country's interior. "Because of poverty, they drop out." For many of these girls, prostitution, which is on the rise in Liberia, is their only option.

Advertisement

Adds Hannah Farr, a 27-year-old student at Cuttington University and activist, "most of them are out there, in the street. You see them go from man to man. I tell them, 'This is not good for your health. It will destroy you.' "

Class, of course, plays a role in all of this. The upper- and middle-class women — the ones you see populating office buildings, the elected officials, the chic women holding court as hostesses at the ritzy restaurants and casinos catering to expats — will be just fine.

So the challenge is to keep poor girls in school — any school — and to impress upon their parents the need for their girls to be educated. More than 60 percent of females in Liberia ages 15 to 49 cannot read, compared with 30 percent of Liberian men, according to United Nations Liberia.

Advertisement

WIPNET started a training program for young girls, paying their school fees. But they still didn't go to class, Diawara-Howard says. Their parents, overwhelmed by the rigors of postwar life, couldn't spare their daughters. They needed them to work. But engaging young women and girls is vital for the future of Liberia. "We need to bring younger women on board," Diawara-Howard says.

They've got to ensure that there will be another generation of women warriors activating for peace.

"We are women," Etweda Cooper says, back at the Peace Hut, elegant and serene with her salt-and-pepper dreads. "We are nurturers. We are peacemakers. When it's all said and done, we're 50 percent of the population …

Advertisement

"There's a kind of strength that women have," continues Cooper, who was recently appointed mayor of a small fishing village, which she has visions of turning into an eco-friendly tourist resort. "I'm not saying men don't have strength. But we have an inner strength."

"Do you consider yourself a feminist?" I ask Cooper as she gets up to leave.

She turns, pauses. "I am," she says. And with that, she smiles.

Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. She traveled to Liberia on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter.