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Liberian Women Divided On Feelings Towards Men

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2005 became Africa’s first elected female head of state, has promised to involve her female compatriots in the reconstruction of her homeland. She’s already appointed several women to high positions in her government, and there are moves to incorporate more women in the top echelons of the economy. But some Liberian women’s groups say men continue to resist efforts at gender equality in the country. This is despite Mrs. Sirleaf’s leadership – and despite the fact that women proved themselves as leaders during the peace process that in 2003 ended a 14-year civil war. In the third part of a series on the women of Liberia, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines women’s perceptions of the country’s men.

Hawah Goll-Kotchi, a deputy minister in Liberia’s ministry of education, laughs when she’s asked to reflect on men’s attitudes towards the women of the country since Mrs. Sirleaf became president almost two years ago.

“You know, Liberian men – we’re very fortunate that we don’t have the attitude that is perhaps predominant in the sub-region (of Africa). Generally, Liberian men are supportive of women.”

Then the smile in Goll-Kotchi’s voice fades, and she turns serious.

“Of course, during the (election) campaign there were many skeptics – mostly men, but there were also some women – who thought that having a woman president was just unheard of; this was something that just wouldn’t happen. Now that it has happened, the men are gradually closing ranks and are just trying to be supportive with the development of the country, with Mrs. Sirleaf in the lead.”

But Leymah Gbowee, a veteran peace activist in Liberia, leading member of a number of West African women’s groups and commissioner-designate for her country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, isn’t as kind to her male compatriots: Liberia is no different to the rest of Africa, she maintains, with double standards often being applied with regard to women.

“In public, the men say: ‘We are all for women’s rights’ and they praise women as ‘sisters’ and ‘partners’. But in private, some of them insult and abuse women and consider them to be inferior,” Gbowee says.

Just a cursory look at some recent crime statistics, she points out, is proof that women still have a “long and difficult path” ahead of them in Liberia.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is on the increase. In 2005, you had 157 reported cases; in 2006, 360 reported cases.”

In everyday life in Liberia, Gbowee says, she continues to hear “disturbing echoes” of some of the “disgusting language” that some Liberian men used to denigrate women – and especially Mrs. Sirleaf – during the 2005 polls.

“I don’t think that men have simply changed overnight and that all of them now suddenly regard women as equals. They are just more careful now that a woman is in power. But behind closed doors, they still engage in hateful and sometimes violent behavior towards women,” Gbowee says.

Goll-Kotchi says she’s not trying to create the impression that all Liberian men are “angels” when it comes to respect for women’s rights.

“I’m sure there are abusive men (in Liberia); I’m not denying that. There are probably many abusive men in Liberia. But generally, by and large, Liberian men will support the women during their careers,” the deputy minister maintains.

“Many of the Liberian women who are in (powerful) positions – they have sons, they have husbands, they have male counterparts who just support them – because without that support, many of us would not have risen to the positions that we’re in right now.”

Juanita Jarrett, a leading human rights lawyer in Liberia, goes even further in crediting her countrymen with supporting women.

“Africa – even though it’s a male-dominated society – the respect for women is great. Women are considered as the mothers,” she says.

Gbowee, though, isn’t willing to agree and returns to her argument that “double standards” have always been applied to the women of Liberia.

“Sometimes I beg to differ with the respect for women in the Liberian society – I call it a double-standard contradictory rule. For years, we’ve lived in that. Publicly, we (women) are honored and cherished. If this room is full of people seated, and Liberian women walk in here, all of the Liberian men will stand up so that the Liberian women can sit. But in their homes, they (the women) are abused. And if you look at (state) policies (of the past), we were abused in those policies. There was no law on inheritance rights for women who were engaged in polygamous practices; there were no laws on rape. So, respect that? I don’t take that,” she says.

Gbowee says some Liberian men are “devious,” presenting one face of respect for women’s rights to a world eager to embrace their “miraculous transformation” as evidence of a changing Africa, and another face of “discrimination” to women in private.

This attitude was personified by former President Charles Taylor, she says, but continues to manifest itself in Liberian society today.

During the “death throes” of Taylor’s reign, Gbowee led a march of 2,000 women to his office in Monrovia, demanding peace. At first, he refused to see the women – until his officials informed him that the international media was present.

“He finally decided, ‘Okay, I will come down.’ He came down with this sham of, ‘Oh, I have this terrible flu, but because you are my mothers and I love you all, I had to come down.’ Double standards again! Privately, Taylor had different orders (to ignore the women). Publicly, he could tell the television crews, ‘I care about my people, even the women.’”

Meima Sirleaf Karneh, an assistant minister in Liberia’s Ministry of Commerce, acknowledges that many men have discriminated against women in the country, but maintains that this is largely a “thing of the past.”

“That was before the government of Ellen (Sirleaf Johnson). But with the coming to power of President Sirleaf, that has changed. During the peace process, for example, I would say, yes (the statement was true). Women were into advocacy. People needed women in their committees because they needed to be seen as gender sensitive. And when it came to positions, women were not given positions (of authority), before the war. But now, it’s different.”

But Alomiza Ennos, a representative to Liberia’s House of Assembly, agrees with Gbowee that it would be “naïve” to assume that men, after having controlled most aspects of life in Liberia for so long, would suddenly be satisfied to assume less importance in the country’s reconstruction.

“Oh, men who have been in power for over a hundred years – it’s not natural for them to just give up power. And so they are not so happy about women being in control. The finance minister is a woman; the commerce minister is a woman – we have women in every sector of our decision-making in Liberia. And most of our men are frustrated, because it’s not business as usual (for them),” Ennos says.

She adds that many Liberian men are fond of “criticizing in the corner.”

“It shows frustration; it shows deficiency; it shows failure. And the men who are doing it are the men who are yet to accept it (women’s growing presence in Liberian public life)…. It’s a process, for people who have been in power for over a hundred years; we do not expect them to just all of a sudden embrace us.”

Karneh says there’s no need to turn Liberia’s rebuilding into a “childish” battle of the sexes.

“It’s not like a competition between the men and the women. And I wouldn’t say that it’s a negative attitude (by Liberian men towards their female compatriots). It’s just an issue of the fact that women are more represented in strategic areas. It’s an issue of men seeing it as strange. But at the same time, they’re getting along with the system, because they’re seeing the contributions that women are carrying in those areas,” she explains.

“The men…. they are happy, the fact that they know that what the women are doing is valuable and it’s moving the country forward.”

Karneh says that when debating gender issues in Liberia, it’s important to remember that men also voted President Sirleaf into power.

“I know many men who are supporting their women. The ones who are criticizing, I believe are very few, and eventually they’re also going to come on board,” she maintains.

She maintains that Liberian men deserve credit for showing faith in Mrs. Sirleaf.

“We mustn’t forget all the men who voted for Ellen. We must remember that they voted for her, even against (her main rival during the elections, former Liberian and international soccer star) George Weah.”

Karneh says it was never the intention of Liberian women to “seize power” from their male compatriots, but to work “side by side” with men to improve life for all Liberians.

Gbowee, however, says this will only begin to happen once men – and specifically young men – have undergone a “radical mind shift” and have come to regard women as “true equals.”

Jarrett says she’s encouraged that life for women in Liberia is improving. She points to recent amendments to rape legislation, which provide for harsh sentences to be given to perpetrators.

“Up until very recently, in the minds of many Liberian males, there was no such thing as rape. Being a male-dominated society, you would find that the men in court would laugh when these young rape victims came to court. But now the rape law has become more stringent, and rape is now a felony to be punished with drastic punishment.”

Jarrett says women’s involvement in Liberia’s rejuvenation has become “non-negotiable.”

“Women have decided that if there’s no collaboration, if there’s no partnership, things will not progress. But we want to build this nation not just on women’s terms, but on all Liberians’ terms.”