Liberia: How can women recover from war?
Editor’s Note: This week’s national election in Liberia came on the heels of last week’s announcement that two of the three Nobel Peace Prize recipients this year are women from Liberia — current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee. B. Abel Learwellie of the Lutheran Church in Liberia’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program is an IREX Community Solutions Fellow this season with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and has worked closely with Ms. Gbowee (the central figure in the award-winning documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell).
An extensive interview with Learwellie will be published in an upcoming issue of Fellowship magazine. In the following article, published yesterday by Peace X Peace’s “Voices from the Frontlines” blog, Learwellie describes some of the issues his country faces and the work being done to build peace, especially led by women.
“During the war, we were running from the fighting and on our way I was arrested from the group. On that day, I was gang raped at the age of 14 by eight men who went out with me at different intervals, and then sent me away. I later became pregnant and give birth to a girl child. How can I tell the story when I can’t remember who has raped me?”
I am from Liberia, a country struck by 14 years of civil war which claimed the lives of nearly 300,000 people, the majority of whom were women and children. Those who survived experienced many horrors, including displacement, destruction of property, loss of family members, sexual and physical violence, as well as separation from family members and friends. I have lots of memories about the war in Liberia, but I must admit that the violence I witnessed against women, some of whom were raped and killed by their own children, influenced my desire to join the work of peace at the Lutheran Church in Liberia’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program (THRP) in 1998.
The plight of the women during the conflicts and their marginalization at various layers of peacemaking and peacebuilding necessitated the Lutheran Church in Liberia’s THRP to get involved in the process of peacebuilding. One of the major hurdles to women’s participation has been the lack of awareness among them about their role in the peacebuilding process and related activities, as well as the positive roles they can play in building peace at the community level.
THRP is working with war-affected women to increase their participation in sustainable peacebuilding initiatives at the community level. This effort encouraged many women’s groups to participate in peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery initiatives. These initiatives have also increased the effectiveness of women in decision-making processes. A clear example is Liberian women’s involvement in the signing of the various peace accords, particularly the Accra Peace Agreement in 2003, which marked the end of the Liberian civil war. This signifies that that women can be constructive peacebuilders when given the opportunity.
THRP has supported sustainable trauma healing activities in Liberia by promoting reconciliation, peacebuilding, and harmony among war-affected women with skills and competencies in conflict analysis, trauma healing, counseling, mediation and negotiations in the wider framework of enhancing women’s participation in peacebuilding and post-conflict recovery initiatives.
We work with all war-affected women across ethnic, social, and religious backgrounds. Our work also targets primary war victims, particularly former female combatants, raped women and girls, child soldiers, orphans and abandoned children, people with multiple losses or who have suffered severe violence, and single mothers. We also work with community and traditional women leaders, religious women leaders, professional women (teachers, nurses, and others), and people/organizations working with primary women victims. We bring these target groups together in workshops, meetings, and psycho-social intervention sessions; where training or discussions are held; where their stories or testimonies are told; and in some cases, where repentance and forgiveness take place, bringing about a reversal in behavior and attitude. For example, in one of our training sessions, this woman told her story:
During the war, we were running from the fighting and on our way I was arrested from the group. On that day, I was gang raped at the age of fourteen by eight men who went out with me at different intervals and then sent me away. I later became pregnant and give birth to a girl child. How can I tell the story when I can’t remember who has raped me? My child is always asking me to take her to her father, but for each time she says it, I can only share tears. Till now, I am very down-hearted when I think about the incident, especially when I think about my situation, to have a child without a father. With the help of your intervention, I will try to tell my daughter about my past ordeal. Maybe together we both can find a way out and try to live with the situation.
The Liberian civil war generated a lot of stories and painful memories that pinned down victimizers and victims of atrocities. In most cases, these stories have led to helplessness, depression, and severe traumas. We encourage reconciliation and healing in our various activities. These activities are aimed at reconciling participants with themselves, their neighbors, and their conditions for better social reintegration and helping them move on with their lives. To help victims cope with their past situations, special psycho-social sessions are sometimes held behind closed doors so survivors can safely share their experiences.
Bringing the women together from different backgrounds has helped them to start to forgive and find reconciliation. It has also provided a forum for them to openly express themselves, something which has been difficult for most Liberian women to do. Through these experiences, women in Liberia are becoming more open to tolerance and peaceful co-existence in their war-torn communities.
Contact B. Abel Learwellie to learn more about this work and how to support it.