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14 August 2000

Women in Liberia: Forgiving but not forgetting
by Karin Achtelstetter

The first time Grace found herself standing in front of a class again after the long years of war, she almost fainted. Among the boys and girls looking expectantly at her, she recognized the face of the boy who had killed her husband and son as she watched.

The boy also recognized Grace. He fell to his knees in front of her and begged her to forgive him, and she did.

"Forgive and forget," says the English proverb. Christiana R. Davies, the president of the Liberian Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) is quite prepared to forgive, but certainly not to forget. "If we forget, we will learn nothing from our history," Davies says, and it sounds almost like an incantation. "We never want another war."

The women in the meeting room at the National Women's Commission of Liberia (NAWOCOL) nod in agreement. NAWOCOL is the umbrella organization for 105 Liberian women's organizations. Founded in 1991 during the first wave of the war, one of NAWOCOL's objectives is to link up women's self-help initiatives and unite their efforts in defending the interests of women in Liberia.

The women's groups banded together in NAWOCOL support agricultural projects, help women to set up small businesses, issue small loans to women in desperate need and look after teenage mothers and girl drug addicts. Victims of violence or rape can find help in NAWOCOL's AWAG project.

"We believe in solidarity among women. We look after one another. We help one another," Pearl says. "During the war we had to fend for ourselves. Our men were either forcibly recruited or they hid in cellars and attics so they wouldn't have to fight. The war made men of us women... We learned how to look after ourselves," she says, with a mixture of pride and defiance.

The women of NAWOCOL will have to go on showing spirit and tenacity, because from now on AWAG - trauma counselling for women and girls abused or raped during the war - will have to manage without support from UNICEF. But Pearl and the other women refuse to give up. "We'll have to find ways and means of financing our projects ourselves so that we can be independent of the donor agencies," Pearl adds.

Three years after a shaky peace was reached in Liberia, counselling to help women work through traumatic experiences is still urgently needed although, according to Pearl, the focus of the work has shifted with the passage of time. The immediate need was for first aid, but it is now a matter of working through the long-term consequences and reintegrating the women and girls who have been the victims of abuse and rape. "We have brought the women and girls to the point where they can more or less cope with their lives again. Now we have to support them as they make a new start in life."

The road to this new life is a far from easy. "Hush, hush, don't talk about it," is the advice most of these women get from their families and friends. "Hush, hush," - because who is going to marry a woman who has been raped?

So far, the perpetrators have gone unpunished. Women and girls often have to live side by side with their abusers in a village community. The act remains unavowed, unexpiated and yet, again and again, the women and girls who spoke to the international ecumenical women's delegation said they want to forgive.

The women of the Baptist Missionary Educational Convention are also prepared to forgive - but not to forget.

Sara has come a long way. When she finally reaches the meeting it's too late. The guests of the international ecumenical delegation are preparing to leave. Sara stands erect and determined in the middle of the group. She has come to testify, and she wants the women visitors to hear what she has to say and take her story home with them.

"My story is endless," Sara says "and I won't go into details. I went through everything a woman could possibly go through in this war, but I don't want to talk about it." She tells of her husband who was attacked in front of her by a boy soldier. "In the end the boy cut off his head. I was forced to watch. My mother was killed and I couldn't even bury her because I was held on the other side of the front."

But Sara wants to forgive the boy; she meets him almost every day, and every day the sight of him causes her to relive the scene of horror - yet she wants to forgive him. Sara takes a deep breath. "You take a long time to forgive, but the Bible teaches us to love one another and forgive one another." So Sara is fighting with all her strength to love this boy. She includes him in her prayers, and "every day," she says, "I can forgive him a little more." But Sara will never forget.

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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