Liberia Women: Peace Must Prevail

  • Liberian women pray for a peaceful election inside Monrovia’s peace tent, which is set up in a field where women gathered as far back as 2002 to protest Liberia’s civil war.

  • The Women in Peacebuilding Network, or WIPNET, organized a number of peace-related activities and put together groups of domestic observers, who came to the peace tent to pick up their credentials before the first round of elections, held Oct. 10.

  • Mama Kolubah, who has never forgotten the horrors of Liberia’s civil war, visits the peace tent regularly. She says she often feels anxious when she is alone and gains strength when she is around other women working for peace.

  • Bernice Freeman leads advocacy efforts for WIPNET and met with many candidates before the first round of elections in Liberia, urging them – among other things – to insist that their supporters respond peacefully to election results.

  • The runoff to determine which of the top two candidates will become Liberia’s election is currently on hold while the courts consider claims of irregularities and fraud, and so the women continue to gather at the peace tent to fast and pray.

Every day in the weeks leading up to Liberia's Oct. 10 election, scores of women wearing white t-shirts and blue-and-white skirts gathered in an open-air tent set up in a field in the capital city of Monrovia.

Though most favored one or another of the country’s 20 presidential candidates, none of them was there to stump for a politician.

They were there to fast and pray for peace.

From sunrise to sunset – in oppressive heat and torrential rain – the women sat or lay on mats on the ground, sometimes praying silently and sometimes chanting or singing.

Fourteen years after Liberia's long civil war, their wounds still feel fresh.

"I’m out here because I don’t want to go back to the past," said 53-year-old Mama Kolubah. "When I hear candidates and supporters talk about, if they don't win, they will not accept it, my mind goes back to where we came from, and I don't want to go back."

Kolubah's voice trembled as she spoke of the atrocities she witnessed between 1990 and 2003. She recalled stepping over bodies in the road and literally crawling through intersections to avoid getting shot by combatants who’d set up on either side of the street. She talked of her husband – the father of her oldest daughter – dying. There were other horrors, she said, but she still can’t talk about those.

Most of the women who come to the tent have stories like Kolubah's, said Bernice Freeman, director of advocacy for the Women in Peacebuilding Network, called WIPNET for short.

They've lost husbands, parents, children. They’ve suffered rape. They've seen and experienced savageries that still haunt them.

But they didn’t suffer silently. They took action.

In 2002, Freeman and 20 or so other women who were sick of war came together to put an end to it. Calling themselves Liberia Women Mass Action for Peace, and led by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, they soon marshaled thousands of like-minded women. The group occupied the field where the peace tent now stands – a place that then-President Charles Taylor had to pass by daily on the way to his office – and held peaceful protests. Eventually, they were granted an audience with Taylor and helped persuade him to attend peace talks in Ghana. In late 2003, a peace accord was signed.

In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia's president and Africa’s first elected head of state. She is now at the end of her second and final term, and while people hold different opinions about how successful her presidency has been, all agree that it has been peaceful.

"I can walk and sleep sound," Mama Kolubah said. "Since the war, nobody can enter your house – open your door without knocking and rape you or kill you or take your food."

The women of WIPNET worry that the election could jeopardize that security, so, with help from The Carter Center, they’ve been working to support a peaceful, democratic transition of power. They've created anti-violence campaigns, presented demands to candidates, and organized an early warning system to alert authorities to potential violence in their communities.

Election day passed peacefully, and Carter Center’s 50-person delegation of observers reported that the voting process was generally conducted according to procedure.

Neither the Center nor any other accredited observation mission reported seeing evidence of systemic fraud.

After several days of tallying, the National Election Commission announced that former soccer player George Weah and current Vice President Joseph Boakai had won the top two spots and would move on to a runoff, originally scheduled for Nov. 7.

But several political parties submitted complaints alleging fraud and irregularities, and Liberia's Supreme Court has halted preparations for the runoff until the disputes can be fully resolved. The cases are currently making their way through the the National Election Commission and the courts. Carter Center observers are following the cases and plan to stay in the country until a resolution is reached.

For now, peace prevails. But the delay – which creates the very real possibility that Liberians won't have a new president before its scheduled inauguration day – has the country on edge. The value of the Liberian dollar has dropped, and the price of staples is rising.

And so the women still meet at the peace tent to pray and continue to work in their communities to combat violence.

If the election resolves peacefully, said Mama Kolubah, "I will feel very, very relieved."

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