Embracing New Hopes in Liberia
"Local Voices at the Crossroads" is a series of articles in which local actors of daily peace share their views on the fragilities and resilience of their societies in the face of conflict. Grassroots societies are at the crossroads between local realities and national peacebuilding policies and practices. The series therefore aims to accelerate action at the local level by strengthening the voices of civil society at the political level. "Local Voices at the Crossroads" is hosted by the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) and is the result of a collaboration with the Evidence Platform for Peace and Conflict Resolution (PeaceRep) at the University of Edinburgh.
In this new article of "Local Voices at the Crossroads", we focus on the work of the Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP), Focal Point organisation of CSPPS in Liberia, and its efforts to uncover cultural practices that are detrimental to women and girls’ rights in Liberia.
The Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP) is a non-governmental organisation dedicated to research and peacebuilding in Liberia through the use of evidence-based and participatory action activities. It aims to identify communities’ needs and challenges and bring sustainable solutions, with the ultimate goal of promoting safe and inclusive societies. P4DP is represented by James Suah Shilue, Executive Director of P4DP. James shared the extensive work of P4DP to depict women’s rights’ violations as well as to promote their empowerment in this latest contribution to Local Voices at a Crossroads.
The Liberian context
The fourteen years of civil war in Liberia were devastating and affected the entire society. Marginalized groups in particular were affected harshly, and many women and girls were left with scars that continue to affect them physically and emotionally.
Although remarkable progress has been made to further the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda since the adoption of United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000, violence against women and girls in Liberia remains the most widespread form of abuse. This affects one third of all women in their lifetime. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) remains a growing concern despite several efforts by the government and its development partners, opinion leaders, and religious and community stakeholders to mitigate its effects.
However, statistics in post-war Liberia suggest that periods of peace also have implications for women. For most women, the end of war and conflict is marked by the excessive effects of socio-economic inequalities and negative gender norms. These strengthen the need for the inclusion and participation of women in decision-making roles, including female leadership. The inspiring ascendance of Ellen Johnson, the first elected female head of state in Africa who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, provided Liberian women with hope. However, cultural factors continue to form huge barriers to women’s political participation who often face discriminatory attitudes. In addition, emerging evidence shows that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the lives of women, including numerous accounts of rape, forced marriages, and dowry, increasing men’s dominance and encouraging the discrimination and dehumanization of women.
Mobile4Women: P4DP and countering SGBV
In May 2020, P4DP received a project grant from the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) and Spotlight Initiative through UN Women to contribute to WPHF efforts on conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and recovery in Liberia. In this context, P4DP designed “Mobile for the Promotion of Justice of Women and Girls’ Rights”, otherwise known as Mobile4Women. This project aims to promote justice for women in Liberia by conducting research on women who are experiencing marginalization and SGBV. Conducted in two locations - Grand Bassa and Montserrado Counties - the project advocates for women’s rights as well as aiming to enhance their access to justice through the use of audio-visual tools. Considering the tremendous gender literacy gap in Liberia, with 62.7% literacy rate for male as opposed to a 34.09% rate for female according to UNESCO, a decision was made to use audio- visual not only to help learners retain most of what they hear, see and feel but also to reach a wider audience.
The project focused on three outcomes: 1) Exploring evidence-based prevention programs to promote gender-equitable social norms, attributes and behaviors; 2) Ensuring quality, disaggregated, and globally comparable data; and 3) Strengthening and supporting women’s rights civil society organisations.
The data collected from the Mobile4Women project revealed that most barriers that prevent women and girls from accessing social, cultural, and religious rights in post-war Liberia are tied to deeply rooted norms about the structure of society and the understanding of the role and definition of men and women. In some parts of rural Liberia, women traditionally receive male visitors by singing in their local vernacular asserting and amplifying male superiority and ownership of the land. Ironically, these local women often decry and complain about discriminatory treatments based on their gender but continue to reinforce these practices that are linked to misogyny in different ways, shaping gendered attitudes and expectations.
Using Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods, the Mobile4Women project works with women and girls in several rural communities to understand the implications of these negative cultural practices and simultaneously makes an effort towards shifting the paradigm. PAR provides a tacit approach in addressing and challenging power dynamics.
The data gathered under Outcome 2 of the project demonstrated that access to justice for vulnerable women and girls still remains a huge challenge. This is due to the lack of access to financial resources, the lack of access to lawyers, the fear of possible backlash, and the compromising influence of the community and family to SGBV cases.
Under Outcome 3, ten women’s rights or women-led organizations received specialized training to sustain the awareness and advocacy against negative social, cultural, and religious norms that contribute to marginalization and discrimination of women and girls’ experiences. During the capacity building training for women’s rights and women-led organizations on GBV, the participants described the training as a vital platform that provided an opportunity to build their capacities on critical issues previously considered taboo.
“The training allowed us to fully distinguish the characteristics of masculinity and femininity that promote GBV” - A female participant from the capacity building training
In post-training interviews, the participants displayed clearly the way men are able to take advantage of women in all aspects of life, without women being able or allowed to question those norms. Due to such norms, many women struggle to participate effectively in societal affairs. The lack of skills or education among many of these women greatly challenges their access to economic opportunities. It is critical that the implications of conflict on these women are clearly understood.
P4DP’s research findings were shared in audio-visual based discussions in order to sensitize beneficiaries on the way negative perceptions are perpetrated through patriarchal values and structures. As such, the project adopted several innovative strategies to disseminate and advocate change. In addition to using PAR methodology in data collection and overall interactions, the dissemination of the key research findings is done through practical and user-friendly means, including a documentary on SGBV, several newspapers articles including “P4DP Tracking Cultural Practices Affecting Women”, Spoon TV Live diffusion, Facebook, and airing on three radio stations four youth-led video clubs. P4DP deliberately entered a contract with specific video clubs in communities with high incidents of GBVs, to engage youth in gender-related issues and erase values of dominance from an early age. The contract allowed the results of the film-based research to be screened for 5-6 minutes before the soccer match would start and to engage the participants in discussing the videos both during breaks and after the games.
Progress made and the way forward
As a result of Mobile4Women, two new grassroots Change Agent Women Community groups formed to support the work of P4DP. In addition, 10 women’s rights and women-led beneficiary organisations were trained as peacebuilders to implement community driven action plans against negative cultural norms and non-violent transformation. Some of the beneficiary women groups are providing vocational skill training for vulnerable women and girls, as well as engaging in health talks in assigned communities.
Despite the many challenges of post-civil war Liberia for girls and women, they mustered the courage to become active participants in the country’s post war recovery processes. They have led change mainly through civil society and the informal economy. In return, individual women and organisations have since received local, national, regional and international support for their endeavors.