US scholars are trying to help Liberian women through education. (file photo)
US scholars are trying to help Liberian women through education. (file photo)

Scholars and officials in the United States are trying to help with women empowerment in war-torn Liberia, where many women were previously victims of abuse and neglect during years of conflict. One such project is to develop the first gender studies program at the University of Liberia.

Spearheading the project, Georgia State University Associate Professor Layli Maparyan says Liberia is a very good fit for her endeavor. "Liberia made world history when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first democratically elected woman president on the continent of Africa in 2006 and she immediately distinguished herself by making gender issues a very high priority of her administration so that immediately created a great deal of international visibility for Liberia as this sort of laboratory for gender development issues," she said.

Maparyan explains gender studies is not just about women. "It is much more about equity between the sexes and equal rights for the different genders, about repairing historical inequalities, as well as making sure that the unique contributions of people of different sexes are recognized," she said.

But she says a gender studies program is not established overnight. She says a curriculum has to be established and specialized faculty need to be found. Maparyan would like to start with what she calls "a basic-gender 101 class" as soon as possible.

In the meantime, she has been encouraged by the progress Liberia has made in regards to women's issues, after years of being near the bottom of world rankings in terms of gender equality.

"I think there are some areas that Liberia has done well in is making sure that women are installed in government in the highest positions of leadership, as well as mounting some notable media campaigns to change attitudes at the level of the general public. It has also been working very assiduously to upgrade its laws and its legal systems to handle gender-related issues and problems," she said.

These include high rates of sexual violence.

Liberia's honorary consul for the state of Georgia, Cynthia Nash, has helped with Maparyan's long-term project as well as with female education initiatives, including with the U.S. agency for international development USAID.

"We have a whole generation that we have lost who have not been educated, who are lacking skills and so the government in partnership with USAID and others have programs to fast track adults, young adults, who have not been to high school, elementary schools, middle school to fast track them so they can get the necessary skills and requisite requirements to go into college or to the workforce," she said.

Nash says such immediate practical initiatives are what she calls hand in glove to long-term academic pursuits like gender studies to ensure future female empowerment in Liberia.

At the top of Liberia's government, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently fired all but one member of her Cabinet, as she seeks re-election next year.  

She had initially said she intended to stay only one term in power, but she has said she feels she can continue to help on a number of issues by serving in the country's highest office, including women's rights.