Nearly 30,000 women and children were drawn into the 13-year civil war that ended in Liberia in 2003. As they try to regain their lives, Amnesty International is helping former women soldiers reintegrate into society. From New York, VOA's intern Maha Saad has the story.
The civil war that began in 1989 tore apart Liberia's social fabric. At least 150,000 people were killed and nearly one million others were displaced. In the midst of this conflict, many young people were forced to become child soldiers, while others joined armed factions because they had no other option for survival.
Florence Ballah, a 27-year-old woman from the northernmost county of Lofa, was separated from her family at age 13. She joined a rebel group as a cook, seeking protection from the chaos around her.
"I started to associate myself with the war, but not as a trained soldier," said Florence Ballah. "I was a victim and then a slave. My experience during the war was very terrible."
But the male soldiers around her did not protect her. And she, like so many other girls and women, was a victim of sexual violence. Ballah now works as an advocate for women's rights to ensure that they are included in the recovery effort. Many women are stigmatized for participating in the war as laborers, sex slaves, and soldiers. She says quality education will be the best way to support these women.
"We need women to get involved in other good things like leadership, political activities," she said. "They could take advantage of that time to be able to train these women into business, into other things that could help the women to really stand up on their feet."
Amnesty International, the human rights group, is highlighting the different needs of women in post-conflict situations. The group is advocating to fully reintegrate former combatant women into society, especially those who were sexually abused.
Amnesty's Tania Bernath says not enough women are benefiting from a joint United Nations-Liberian government program to give women the education and training they need to become a part of the community.
"Our goal, really, is to help women to be able to access these because they have so many burdens on them," said Tania Bernath. "And the other issue that is really key is the issue around sexual violence and how that impacts upon women's ability to reintegrate, also."
Bernath also says women should share their stories, particularly those who experienced sexual violence, so they can shed the shame and stigma associated with it.
Sexual violence was used as a weapon during the war, with staggering numbers of women reporting sexual abuse that continues to this day.
Jackie Redd, a 30-year-old woman from the Liberian capital, Monrovia, was raped during the war. She agrees with Bernath.
"They should not be ashamed," said Jackie Redd. "Maybe by explaining everything that happened to them, it will make them be free. Maybe other people will understand about what happened that they joined these fighting groups. They should be free to tell that story."
The Liberian government is helping women, too. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf outlawed rape when she first came to office in 2006. Now, rapes are reported more often.
Liberian Women Advocate Change in Post-Conflict Recovery