“I am woman, hear my roar”

Katharine Houreld
6 October 2005

Every week the women in white can be found at Monrovia’s dilapidated old airfield, praying for the safety of the Liberian nation. They gather by the hundreds, braving torrential rain or blazing sunshine, determined that God will never forget them again.

Almost every woman here has been driven from her home by war; all have lost a child, parent or husband to the vicious civil war that engulfed Liberia for fourteen years. Some, like Mother Margaret Malley, are almost the only survivors of their whole family.

Also by Katharine Houreld on Liberia’s election in openDemocracy: “A taste of freedom” (September 2005)

“When they (former President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front) came, six people in my family died – my brother, uncle and sisters. Some of them just died in the bush, from hunger or sickness. The people who fled south told us they just left them to rot, everyone was afraid to stop,” recalls Malley. But reaching the capital was no guarantee of safety. More than ten years after the death of her family, when Taylor had become president and was fighting the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd) rebels for control of Monrovia, Mother Margaret lost part of her arm fleeing from a series of mortar attacks that the locals nicknamed World War Three.

“When the war was on, we came here to pray all day, every day,” she says. “We fasted, we prayed by candlelight, when there was fighting in the street people would call us and we would go there and pray.”

Now it seems the prayers of these women, the poorest survivors of hundreds of thousands displaced by war, have finally been answered. Elections scheduled to be held on 11 October are part of the 2003 peace deal which ended the brutal conflict and pushed Charles Taylor into exile.

In actions shocking even to fellow west African regimes, child soldiers had slit open the stomachs of pregnant women and strung up roadblocks of human intestines. By some estimates, a third of women displaced by war were raped, many more than once. But after years of abuse, women are taking control of Liberia’s political scene and they are a force to be reckoned with.

“During the war, men were all in hiding or away fighting. Women were the main breadwinners, they were having to go behind enemy lines to find food for their children,” explains Councillor Jeanette Ebba-Davidson, of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, a pressure group formed during the days of civil war. “Weaklings cannot feed a family or speak out about atrocities…and now the war is over, we are speaking out again and saying we want don’t want to be deputy this or that, we want to be ministers and presidents too.”

One of two women competing for the presidency and one of the top candidates is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a feisty political veteran who once resigned a post as finance minister after protesting excessive government spending. Her straight-talking ways, and her castigation of the murderously corrupt Samuel Doe regime (1980-90) as “idiots,” led to two spells in prison.

“I was taken to Shefflin military base and put in a cell with twelve other people. One by one they were taken out and shot,” she remembers. “They even took the laces from my shoes to tie their hands behind their backs.”

Sirleaf has admitted that she initially supported Taylor during the early stages of his rebellion against President Doe, who had himself seized power in a coup. However, she insists that once she learned of Taylor’s human-rights abuses she turned away from him, even running against him for the presidency in 1997.

“I was Mr Taylor’s avowed enemy,” she said. “The indictment against him (by the Special Court for Sierra Leone) has to run its course…we want to put the ghost of Mr Taylor to rest.”

Neither imprisonment, threats nor the murders of colleagues has cowed Johnson-Sirleaf, who outlines her campaign platform last week to the strains of “I am woman, hear me roar.” But the “iron lady” faces a formidable task if she is indeed elected Africa’s first female president. There has been neither electricity nor running water for fourteen years, unemployment stands at 85% and thousands of disaffected ex-combatants roam the countryside.

In a country where conflict has been punctuated by sexual violence and billboards implore Do not beat on a Woman, Johnson-Sirleaf says her presidency “will be the strongest signal to the African and international community that there is global equality, particularly relating to laws on domestic violence and rape. In many cases the laws are in place but the enforcement is lacking.”

Her carefully cultivated maternal image may contrast favourably among Liberia’s voters with that of the legions of warlords that have terrorised her country. Her background as “the granddaughter of a Kru market woman” (proclaimed on her CV) and experience of teenage motherhood may also help soften any jealousy over her Harvard education and high-profile managerial career, which includes spells at the World Bank and Citibank. Her closest rival for the presidency cultivates an equally impressive narrative: former international soccer star George Weah has built a popular campaign presenting his childhood in Monrovia’s slums and his meteoric, lucrative sporting career as foundations of a dutiful commitment to his people’s well-being.

There are many imponderables as polling-day approaches – three of the candidates had even contested the legality of the polls as far as the supreme court. Among some Liberian voters, at least, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s campaign is working. In the crumbling back streets of Monrovia, Anita Bowman is feeding her five children out of one plastic bowl on the steps of her rickety house. Yet she is thankful to be able to eat three times a day; during the war, there was only bread and shellfish from the beach. “I want education for my children, clean water, peace, just like everyone else,” she said. “Look what the men have done to this country. I will vote for the lady.” On the wall behind her, a peeling poster of Ellen raises her fist in a silent salute.

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