Liberia’s Minister of Gender and Development said the status of women has improved dramatically since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power nearly 10 years ago.
Julia Duncan-Cassell said most rural women who could not read prior to the 2005 election are now able to do so thanks to a literacy program introduced by the government.
She also said businesswomen are driving Liberia’s informal economy, and some of them are breadwinners. But, Duncan-Cassell added, Ebola was a setback to the progress of Liberian women.
She denied criticism that Sirleaf, as Africa’s first elected female president, has paid mostly lip service to women’s issues such as rape and genital mutilation.
“When Madam Sirleaf took over, it was [her] ambition to empower women and especially the rural women. Prior to the 2005 elections, most women across the country were using the thumb print to vote or to transact business. After the elections, the women in Liberia, almost 68 percent of them, could read to some level,” she said.
Duncan-Cassell said the Ebola crisis has slowed the progress Liberian women have been making. She rejected criticism that her ministry has not done enough to care for the over 3,000 Ebola orphans and said the government has put in place a number or programs to help care for them.
“As government and our partners, we have set up what is called the foster care program. This is to train people within the community to serve as foster care parents. We also have what is called the Safety Net program through cash transfer for the orphans,” Duncan-Cassell said.
She said the government is also partnering with a number of faith-based institutions to accept some Ebola orphans into their boarding schools.
Sirleaf promised to make a crackdown on rape a top priority. But critics say she has paid only lip service to the issue while Liberia experiences a sharp increase in the crime, including the recent rape of a 12-year-old girl who later died from complications of the assault.
Duncan Cassell said the issue of violence against children is a societal one. But she said that if Liberia is to win the war against rape, it has to be done by both the government and the people working hand-in-hand.
“The issue of violence against children is not a government thing; it’s a societal thing. It’s something that the society and community should take ownership of. Parents have responsibility to their children,” she said.
She outlined a number of steps which Sirleaf’s government has taken to address the problem of rape.
“The government enacted a law making rape a non-bailable crime; we established a special court for the speedy trial of rape cases,” she said.
Duncan-Cassell said the family members of victims often compromise cases because they don’t want to go to court thinking the legal process is too slow.
“The community itself has a role to play. If we are to win this war against rape, it has to be done collectively. Most of the victims know who their perpetrators are. They are people in the community that these children refer to as uncles, brothers or whatever. The perpetrators are not strangers,” Duncan-Cassell said.
On the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), referred to by some as a human rights issue, critics said Sirleaf has also not done enough to outlaw the practice.
Duncan-Cassell said the president believes in “zero tolerance” for all forms of violence, including FGM. She said that while FGM is a form of culture, it can also be modified.
“So, we are working with our traditional people to see how they can learn from what people have done in other countries that practice similar rituals so that they can now see how they can empower themselves to move away from the FGM. So, we are working with our traditional leaders educating them to protect the rights of girls as it relates to FGM,” Duncan-Cassell said.