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25 September 2000

Every one a heroine - the lives of women in Liberia
Karin Achtelstetter

The hall in the YWCA headquarters is festively decorated. There is a bustle of excitement in the air. All the women we met during our time here and who shared a bit of their lives with us have come once again to say goodbye before our five-member international ecumenical women's delegation leaves Liberia.

Here are Christiana R. Davies, the president of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) of Liberia, Lucretia J.Thomas, its general secretary, and Rosaline Tweh, its present chairwoman; the advocate Elizabeth J. Boyenneh, who is trying to bring charges in a rape case for the first time in Liberia's legal history; Elizabeth, caring for her orphans throughout the war and the uneasy peace; the women of the Pan-African Christian Women's Alliance (PACWA), who are setting new signs of peace and hope for Liberia; and the women of the Lutheran World Federation's Liberia Programme, who are working with traumatized women and former combatants - all familiar faces. The life stories of these women make every one of them a heroine.

The purpose of our visit to Liberia from 27 July to 2 August was to express international solidarity with Liberian women. We sought to meet them on a woman-to-woman basis and to hear their stories from their own lips.

Christiana's Story
A farewell party is being held and the air is full of bustle and excitement. One story begins right here - the story of Christiana, who gave all she could to save the YWCA headquarters.

The building has a welcoming blue and yellow painted facade, a wide, sparsely furnished reception hall, a small circle of white chairs in a corner, some plants. For a moment the consequences of the war and the post-war problems seem to be forgotten. "Come up to the first floor," says Christiana. Even before we reach the top of the stairs, her story comes pouring out. Twice during more than seven years of civil war this building was destroyed and looted - once in 1990, right at the beginning of the war, and again in 1996. "We had just begun the renovation work when the house was attacked and looted again," she remembers.

Like almost everywhere else in Monrovia, the building's roof was destroyed and the looters did their work thoroughly. Chairs gathered by dint of effort since the war, a blackboard and a sewing machine seem almost lost in the otherwise empty rooms.

"Baking, sewing, tie-dying, bread-making" - a schedule stapled to the wall witnesses to new life in the bare rooms. Fifty to sixty women now take courses here. For many, the courses mean the chance of getting a job to feed their families. There are also writing and arithmetic lessons and a day-care centre for small children.

Life has returned to the YWCA headquarters, thanks to Christiana and other YWCA women who defied destruction and started rebuilding all over again. As YWCA president, she saw the house through the war and now she has to defend it again, this time against real estate speculators. Christiana knows she will never give up. "The YWCA needs a home," she says determinedly.

Karta's Story
A farewell party is being held at the YWCA headquarters and all the women we met have come to bid us farewell - or almost all. The women in the VOI 1 and Banjor refugee camps could not come, but in our thoughts they are with us and part of us - women like Karta, a refugee from Sierra Leone who has found a haven in VOA1.

"K-A-R-T-A S-A-N-N-O-H" - Karta writes her name carefully on the blackboard. She turns around and smiles proudly at the international guests. "I love this programme. For the first time in my life, I'm getting an education." Her fellow-students nod in agreement. At the moment there are twenty-five women taking the six months' course in writing and arithmetic offered by the YWCA here in VOA 1 and in the Banjor Refugee Centre.

The blackboard stands on the sand, propped up against a straw hut. The women's enthusiasm about learning, at last, to write and do sums cannot conceal the hardships of their life as refugees. Many of them have been in Liberia since 1992, and children die in the camp almost every day.

For Karta and her fellow-students, learning to write and do sums is a first step towards financial independence. This course will be followed by training in a skilled trade. Tailoring, tie-dying and soap-making are the most popular courses. The women will offer the goods they have made themselves for sale in the markets, here in the outskirts of Monrovia and of course back home, when they are finally able to go home - whenever that may be.

Tailoring, tie-dying and soap-making also top the list with the women in the Banjor Refugee Centre. James L. Tommy, a trainer brought in by the YWCA, says emphatically, "In the Banjor Refugee Centre we aim for equality and an equal right to education." The demand for courses is heavy in both VOA 1 and Banjor, but there are limits to what can be done because of a lack of financial support from overseas. "But we keep going," says Tommy.

At the farewell party at the YWCA headquarters, we see familiar faces and recall the life stories of Liberian women - every one a heroine.

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 ends the six-part series of reports from the visit of the five-member international ecumenical women's delegation to Liberia from 26 July to 2 August. The five women went to find out at first hand about the situation of women and children in post-war Liberia and to express solidarity. The visit was planned and organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC), the World Alliance of YWCAs, the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

Photos from Liberia are available at:
PhotoOikoumene or telephone: (+41.22) 791.62.95

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.