Liberia’s Women Warn Male Presidential Candidates: Keep the Peace


There is no question that Mrs. Sirleaf is running on reserves when it comes to her political capital after 12 years, during which government corruption has continued unabated, the health system has remained in shambles and unemployment among young men remains high.

But she has brought back electricity and running water throughout much of the country, built the roads that have enabled Liberians to travel freely from their villages to the cities, and allowed a level of freedom to criticize her leadership that is seldom seen in other African countries.

Most critically, she has kept the peace.

This country, founded by freed American slaves, has never done anything by half measures.

Not disease: The 2014 Ebola epidemic killed 5,000 people in Liberia, more than anywhere else, entering the urban, densely populated capital of Monrovia and laying waste to the country’s health system.

Not war: The Liberian civil war, begun in 1989, lasted 14 years, killed more than 200,000 people across four countries and introduced the world to child soldiers, a “Butt Naked Brigade” and fighters clad in Halloween fright masks and white wedding gowns.

And certainly not redemption: When the war finally ended, the pendulum swung so far that it imploded centuries of male domination on the African continent. In 2005, Liberian women, fed up with the widespread rape and indiscriminate killing that was a calling card of the civil war, staged a democratic coup, using means both fair and foul to put in place Mrs. Sirleaf as president.

Now, near the end of her tenure, the women say ominous signs are cropping up. Last week, the male-dominated Liberian Senate moved to amend the rape law that was passed after the civil war, which had made rape a non-bailable offense.

If the new Senate amendment is passed by the House of Representatives, which is also male-dominated, men accused of rape will be able to get out of jail on bail.

“It’s almost like they’re going to reverse everything we’ve done,” Ms. Garnett said, referring to the rape amendment.

The issue is deeply felt here, since some estimates put the number of women who have been raped in Liberia at around 70 percent, a legacy of the civil war and a military coup that preceded it. Even before she was elected president, in 2005, Mrs. Sirleaf and a few female lawyers, seeking to stigmatize rape of underage girls, had asked the legislature to prescribe sentences for rapists. The farthest the legislators would go was seven years.

Still, the women took that as a step forward, and since then there have been more prosecutions for rape — something that almost never happened before. But that has also prompted complaints from many men that the country’s slow judicial system meant they were sitting in jail for months before their cases came up.

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The Women in Peacebuilding Network and other groups gathered in Monrovia on Monday to call for a peaceful presidential election.

Credit
Jane Hahn for The New York Times

There are 20 candidates vying to replace Mrs. Sirleaf. The male contenders include Joseph Boakai, her estranged vice president; George Weah, a former soccer player; Charles Brumskine, a lawyer; and Alexander Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive.

Then there are Prince Johnson, a former warlord who videotaped himself ordering his forces to cut off the ears of the former president Samuel Doe while Mr. Johnson sipped a beer; Benoni Urey, a former ally of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison after being convicted of war crimes; and George Dweh, another former warlord with six children, named Georgetta, George, George, Georgina, George Jr. and Georgecee.

Election rules dictate that if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote plus one, the top two will go to a runoff, to be held in November.

Some of the male contenders have tried to reach out to their would-be female constituency. Mr. Cummings, the former Coca-Cola executive, said last week that if he were elected and the House passed the new rape law, he would veto it.

He has given scholarship money to the organization representing the women who work in market stalls and largely run the Liberian economy, and has portrayed himself as cleareyed on which sex does the actual work in Liberia and which one is goofing off or fighting.

“I’m a man, so I can say this,” Mr. Cummings told a market women’s group last Thursday. “If you give a woman a dollar, she will spend it well. If you give some of us a dollar, we will spend it on girlfriend business.”

Mr. Weah, the former soccer player at the top of the Congress for Democratic Change ticket, chose a woman for his running mate. But that woman, Jewel Howard Taylor, is the ex-wife of Mr. Taylor, the star of the 14-year civil war, and she has vowed to put his old “agenda back on the table.”

Julius Dolo, the communications director for the Women’s Situation Room, which was established in 2011 to resolve disputes over presidential election results, said on Monday that the organization had gone to Mr. Weah’s party headquarters asking party leaders to pledge to accept the election results without resorting to violence and were refused.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for women this year is that they are split over who should be president. Back in 2005, when Mrs. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated global bureaucrat, was on the ballot, the women of Liberia united behind her.

Market women left their stalls to travel across the country, urging other market women to register and vote. Women even resorted to a slew of underhanded tactics.

They stole their sons’ voter ID cards to stop them from voting for Mr. Weah, who was running against Mrs. Sirleaf. They went to bars in the Monrovia suburbs and sweet-talked young men into giving up their voter ID cards in exchange for cold bottles of Club Beer.

Bernice Freeman, another women’s activist, took advantage of helpful poll workers who were allowing pregnant women and nursing mothers to cut to the front of poll lines, and passed the same baby to a succession of female voters at one polling station. Others, she advised to “act pregnant.”

These days, Ms. Freeman remains a thorn in the side of the men. Just a couple of weeks ago, when news reached her that a local man was threatening his wife with a knife, she appeared on the couple’s doorstep with other female activists, took away the man’s knife and marched him to the local police precinct.

He was not arrested, the activists recounted.

She and other female activists have been distributing copies of the documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” across Liberia as a reminder to men that if they act up again and take the country back to war, the women who harassed, demonstrated and organized for peace — and then got Mrs. Sirleaf elected president — will galvanize again.

On Sunday night, Ms. Freeman spent the night on a plastic mattress in the field across from the president’s house. The next morning, she was up and dancing with around 1,500 other women.

On a makeshift stage, a mostly-girl band, the Liberia Crusaders for Peace, was singing “Liberia will rise again.” Two women wearing sashes that said “Miss Tourism Liberia 2017” were dancing with the other women, in a circle, raising white handkerchiefs meant to represent peace.

The lead singer, Janet Cole, delivered a warning, her voice ringing clear above the music so she could be heard by the stream of cars that slowed down on Tubman Boulevard to watch the women.

“Remember,” she said, “when elephant and baboon fight, only the ground can suffer.”

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