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.
"That was just a wake-up call," the president says, looking just a tad pleased with herself. Some people were getting "a little lax," she explains, pursuing "political agendas" instead of the task at hand: rebuilding the country. (All but two of the suspended ministers are now back at work.)
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.
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.
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.