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9 August 2000

Liberia's female face
by Karin Achtelstetter

Monrovia is celebrating. 26 July marks the 153rd anniversary of Liberia's independence. It is a national holiday. The main streets are closed from early morning and traffic is diverted through side streets. Distinguished guests are expected - President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo, President Alpha Oumar Konare of Mali and Gambia's Head of State, Yahya Jammeh.

Around noon, to the strains of Händel's Hallelujah chorus, they will accompany the Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor to the Centennial Pavilion, decked for the occasion in the national colours of red, white and blue.

All in all, an unusual day to begin a women's solidarity visit to Liberia. A five-member international ecumenical delegation of women will spend a full week visiting women and women's organizations in the country. The five women want to find out at first hand about the situation of women and children in post-war Liberia. They also want to assure the women of Liberia of international solidarity and, above all, they want to listen. This solidarity visit was planned and organized by representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World YWCA, the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

It is indeed an unusual day: the festively decorated hall, the men in tails or dinner jackets, the women - Liberian women in key positions in society - in evening dresses, official robes or uniform. The Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as is the Commission on Reconciliation. Women are in leading positions in the police force and in the army. During the civil war some of them fought for Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front and reached the rank of commander.

"Liberian women are different... they are special people... they are strong," a representative of the national YWCA told us. "Liberian culture had a high regard for women, but when the war came women went to extremes. No matter what a Liberian woman did during the war, she did it for the survival of her family - I forgive her," she added.

Women on the winning side and women as victims. Women as agents of peace and reconciliation and women commanding battalions of child soldiers. Liberia's past and its present are marked by the different - and it seems often contradictory - roles played by its women.

Estimates by the World Health Organization suggest that, during the eight years of civil war in Liberia, more than one-third of the estimated 500,000 displaced women and children were raped. The international agency's filing cabinets are full of reports on the torture and killing of girls, pregnant women and mothers. Alongside them are reports from and about women who fought for one side or the other or occupied key positions in the different factions. And in the end, it was courageous action by women's peace groups like the Women's Peace Initiative that helped to bring peace to the country.

A fragile peace has reigned in Liberia for three years now. The celebration to mark independence day was overshadowed by renewed fighting in the north-west of the country and the festivities in the Centennial Pavilion could not disguise the strong military presence in the city and the ruins left by the war.

How do women and children live in this uneasy post-war period? How do they come to terms with the past? What support do they expect for the future? These are questions the international ecumenical women's team will be asking in the days ahead.

Members of the international ecumenical team:

Hélène Yinda, World YWCA, Geneva (team leader)
Karin Achtelstetter, WCC, Geneva
Jessica Babihuga Nkuuhe, ISIS, Uganda
Lillian Chirombe, World YWCA, Zimbabwe
Ashley Seaman, WCC, Presbyterian Church (USA)

This feature was written during the visit of a five-member international ecumenical delegation of women to Liberia, from 26 July to 2 August, and is the first of a series of features on the West African country. The five women went to Liberia to find out about the situation of women and children in the country after the war. This solidarity visit was planned and organized by representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World YWCA, the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010)

At the Eighth Assembly of the WCC in Harare, Zimbabwe, delegates representing more than 300 WCC member churches brought the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) into being. The Assembly declared that on issues of non-violence and reconciliation, the WCC should "work strategically with the churches... to create a culture of non-violence". The Decade, which will be launched world-wide in February 2001, will build on already existing initiatives around the world, and will offer a forum for sharing experiences and establishing relationships so as to learn from one another.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.