While meeting with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, I was reminded that we all have different calls to action. Our triggers for inspiration vary, and our motivations for action are diverse. President Sirleaf told me a story about an experience she had the day before, in Bonga. As a young 9th grader approached the podium to talk about her future aspirations, she looked straight into the eyes of Africa’s first female Head of State and said, “I want to be better than you.”
President Sirleaf was inspired, rather than daunted, by this bold comment, because women’s leadership is something she believes in. She wants young Liberian girls to rise and be empowered to fill positions of leadership across all sectors – not just politics. (For those who’d like to know, the President was moved to offer the young girl a full scholarship for the rest of her studies.)
While more opportunities are on the horizon for women in Liberia, women’s advancement in all sectors is barred by the violence they experience inside and outside of their homes. As a USAID report noted: “For women and girls, the threat of violence impedes their movement for economic, educational and civic activities.” In this way, even though Liberia is a post-conflict country, violence is the first battle women must fight – an obdurate challenge that must first be overcome to reach opportunities for advancement.
There are many women working to heal this violence. Through my blog posts about Liberia, it is my hope that the interconnections between service provision, law enforcement and the court system – between advocacy, counseling, and rehabilitation [at left: recipients of vocational training at THINK] – has been made a bit clearer. Rosana’s own attitude toward the work she and her colleagues do to address sexual violence (several of whom I have profiled in the last few blog posts) is perhaps best summarized in the following quote: “In Liberia, we have a saying that says, ‘Women, all women, don’t sit there. Do something positive along with the men.’ And so we’re moving forward.”
A great example of this mobilization is the cross-sector collaboration that galvanized the passing of a Child Protection Law, a monumental occasion for those confronting violence. After four years of advocacy and struggle by Rosana and other activists and legislators in Liberia, the law was signed by President Sirleaf last October, and launched in February of 2012. The law focuses on protecting children from violence, abuse and exploitation, and their rights to health and education. According to UNICEF, with this law Liberia is one of the first countries to adopt comprehensive legislation for children that utilizes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Children, which “is one of the most comprehensive pieces of children’s rights legislation in the continent.”
Recently speaking on a Vital Voices panel, DRC Global Partnership delegate Annie Rashidi Mulumba commented on her learnings from Liberian colleagues during the Africa Regional Working Session, as a woman working in a country where sexual violence within and outside of conflict is rampant. In her words: “When I talk to women in Liberia, I have hope. They didn’t accept situation. They fought.”
I agree. Women like Rosana, Bennetta, Vivian and others fight violence with healing. Each day I was in Liberia, Rosana taught me through her quiet words and bold actions that there is sublime strength in patience and great audacity found in humility. The courage to wait; to persevere; to not fear being in it for the long haul. A faith that rings true with a quote from Pray the Devil Back to Hell, that “peace is a process; it is not an event.” So, too, it would seem, is healing.
Ultimately, the work of the Vital Voices network, and the women and men we work with and for, speaks for itself. I see my work as ensuring that these voices are heard, amplified – and, beyond this, are listened to. In order to truly heal, their remedies must be remembered, taught and shared.
In an earlier post, I provided an image from the book One Pain Touches All about the roles women balance, but I think this one [right] demonstrates the work that women do to support one another. It is an image of several women steadying a ladder as one of them ascends its steps. Perhaps this is how we can begin the work, by steadying the ladder: securing the platform from which extraordinary women improve the lives of others. After all, on the way up to break the glass ceiling, women need support from below. However, I am not so sure how the healing voices I worked with in Liberia would feel about the idea of breaking anything. They are healers, after all, and I think they might see their work more as renovating the entire building, bit by bit.