In Liberia, Girls and Women Face a Future Without U.N. Peacekeepers

Lorpu Faith Scott, a senior education officer in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, is worried that girls might start missing out on school when the roads get bad.

In the past, U.N. troops helped move cars on the road during the rainy season. But now, as the new school year approaches, she wonders how some girls will reach their classes in bad weather if troops are not around. As part of the U.N. Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL, troops helped people traverse patches of the road that were otherwise unnavigable.

And she worries about the safety of girls who walk to school.  “Security issues will be very hard—especially for the girls,” says Scott, who works for the education nonprofit IBIS Liberia and spoke recently by Skype. “Some of the girls that go to school in the rural areas walk for like 30 minutes to get to where the school is. If they get violated on the road, there’s no security for them when UNMIL is not around.”

The United Nations peacekeeping operation that set up in Liberia in 2003, after the end of the country’s long civil war, started out as the second-largest mission in the world with 15,000 military people and 1,115 police officers.

For more than a decade, U.N. personnel have supported the country’s national police, its justice and corrections operations and some aspects of its central bureaucracy.

On June 30, the United Nations Mission in Liberia returned security control to the national government during an ongoing drawdown that began in 2015. Now the military mission is down to 1,240; the police mission is 606.

The ultimate fate of the mission — how much longer it will be in the country to help out in dire circumstances–will be decided by the U.N. Security Council by Dec. 15.

Some other U.N. properties, such as UN Women and UNICEF, will remain in the country after UNMIL has completely phased out.

Those who supported the security transfer claimed that the country is stable enough to police itself, but concerned citizens believe otherwise.

Certainly, women in the country have established a strong political heritage and foundation for further progress. For the past decade, the country has been led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel peace laureate and the first female president of an African country, who will be leaving office in 2017. While her tenure was marred by allegations of corruption, she has also been credited with stabilizing both the country and its economy.

The country also boasts of Leymah Gbowee, another Nobel peace prize winner who led an interfaith movement of women, also known as the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, using dialogue and civil disobedience to help bring an end to the civil war.

That legacy of peacebuilding has continued to be effective today through institutions such as the Peace Huts, a project of the same movement that is now supported by the U.N.’s Liberian mission and UN Women.

In these Peace Huts, women are given a space to resolve their complaints before they build into violence. The practice has proven so effective that the huts have become celebrated for preventing violence and reducing cases brought to local police stations.

Female-Led Solutions

Sarah Douglas, the gender adviser of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office, says Liberian girls and young women have unique powers in addressing security conflicts in ways that aren’t accessible to forces like UNMIL or the Liberian government.

Douglas, who recently spoke by Skype, says female-led solutions are a critical part of the response to these security threats. “They’re based on the underlying assumption that women and girls know what the solutions to their own problems are.”

The country, however, is taking steps sideways and backward — as well as forward –when it comes to investing in the well-being of girls and women.

In March, the Ministry of Education passed a new code of conduct for teachers that would hold teachers liable for criminal prosecution for impregnating students. That was a positive sign, but the country’s rape law, which criminalizes statutory rape, lacks the resources to be enforced.

Meanwhile, parliament struck a serious blow to those working against gender-based violence in April, when it removed a ban on female genital mutilation, or FGM, from a new domestic violence law.

The change—made over widespread opposition, including that of Julia Duncan Cassell, the country’s minister of gender, children and social protection– came in response to pressure from the Sande, a Liberian secret society that centers on initiating girls into womanhood.

Thousands of girls are annually taken away from their homes and schools to attend Sande encampments, also known as “bush schools,” that prepare them for marriage through genital cutting and training in social etiquette and domestic skills. It is seen as dangerous and forbidden to discuss secret societies like the Sande with those who haven’t been initiated, hence their mysteriousness and infamy in and outside the country.

Half of Liberia’s female population between the ages of 15 and 49 has undergone FGM, and it’s commonly practiced on girls between the ages of 3 and 11.

Sheldon Yett, the outgoing UNICEF country representative for Liberia, says that laws and policies like the rape and domestic violence laws are important, but they don’t have as much of an impact as Liberia’s cultural norms. Yett, who spoke recently by phone, suggests that giving women and girls the space and resources for empowerment is crucial in disrupting the prevalence of gender-based violence in Liberian society.

“There are government policies and laws but those are rather secondary to the things that matter, or to the overall society and culture,” Yett says. “[Through] social norms, women and girls are often seen as second-class citizens. Many practices are meant to keep girls in their place and until they have that impact for change, it’s very hard to move forward.”

Cassell, the gender minister, says the deletion of the ban on FGM in the law against domestic violence is her biggest frustration. But Cassell, who spoke with Women’s eNews over the phone, says it is too soon to make any projections on how the country will handle girls’ safety and gender-based violence in the long run after the U.N. mission leaves.

“Liberians should give themselves credit,” Cassell says. “Somewhere you have to draw the line. UNMIL was here for the last 15 years, almost. So when do you say that it’s OK for UNMIL to leave?”

Special U.N. Policing Units

To meet its mandate to prevent human rights abuses and pay special attention to women and children, the U.N. established policing units to handle gender-based violence and juvenile justice.

The U.N. mission has also been supporting locals in maintaining a safe house for survivors of sexual violence in Lofa County that was originally built for the Ebola crisis. In other efforts, UNMIL has been recruiting and managing talent for the government to ensure that at least 20 percent of the national security staff is women.

Liberia’s Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection and UN Women’s country team on the ground are also entering their third phase of a program that brings together all relevant government and U.N. entities to publicize the problem of sexual and gender-based violence and create strategies to redress it.

However, UNMIL’s most recent progress report, from February, finds that only 14 percent of the mission’s 206 objectives overall have been fulfilled. Sixty-five percent are on schedule and the remaining 21 percent are either behind or not yet begun.

Some of this delay affects what will happen to girls and women after the U.N. mission leaves. Specialized courts for sexual and gender-based violence cases, for instance, are only stationed in eight of Liberia’s 15 counties, hindering prosecutions in the other places.

Just three days before UNMIL made its security transfer, the Unites States, on June 27,pledged $27 million in Let Girls Learn programming to conduct research and increase enrollment, safety and work-readiness for schoolgirls in Liberia.

Yet keeping girls in school has its own risks. A 2014 study found that 18 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys reported being subjected to “sex4grades,” an instance in which a teacher or school administrator will ask schoolchildren for sex to improve their scores. The study also found that 29 percent of girls and 35 percent of boys had reported sexual abuse from teachers, school staff and fellow classmates.

Amid such grim realities, there’s a palpable fear of the unknown now among many Liberians. After decades of government corruption and the atrocities that occurred during Liberia’s wars, civilians have come to trust foreign security forces more than their own, several people interviewed for this article say.

U.N. forces are leaving the country with a record tarnished by allegations of sexual misconduct against the very troops who were stationed in the country to keep girls and women safe.

‘There is Still Rape’

Mae Azango, a Liberian journalist with FrontPage Africa and New Narratives, doesn’t think the U.N. mission has helped reduce sexual and gender-based violence.

“Men will always be men,” says Azango, who spoke recently by phone. “They were part of the terrible people who were violating our girls. Whether UNMIL is here or is absent, it makes no difference because we have the first female president, we have female ministers and yet still there is rape on the increase.”

Azango does acknowledge, however, that UNMIL’s work has brought peace to her country for over a decade. And despite the reassurances from government officials, including  Sirleaf, Azango stresses that the Liberian people are at risk as long as they are left in the hands of a national police force that she says is understaffed and distracted with chronic nonpayment.

While there is a modernization push in some parts of the country, Liberia is still a poor country. More than 60 percent of the country lives below the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme, a humanitarian group based in Rome.

Scott, the senior education officer, chokes up briefly as she recalls what this can mean to a girl’s chances at education and life.

She tells the story of a student she met while teaching in Bomi County, northwest of the capital of Monrovia. Due to her smarts and commanding presence, Scott nicknamed her “Ellen” after President Johnson.

As a fifth grader, “Ellen” was at the top of her class. But by sixth grade she was struggling to keep up with her studies. By eighth grade she could hardly stay awake in school. When Scott confronted her, the girl confessed that her parents were pressuring her into sex with a local pastor. The girl’s family was poor, so her parents condoned the man’s advances so that he would cover the girl’s school fees. Traumatized, the girl spent her nights running around her neighborhood as the pastor chased her. The former star student eventually wound up pregnant and dropped out of school.

“When I talk about her I cry,” Scott says. “I knew how smart she was.”

Widespread Rape, Domestic Violence

In addition to hurting girls’ chances at schooling and safety, poverty also restricts what they can expect from the justice system, particularly in remote areas, when they suffer gender-based violence.

Rape and domestic violence are widespread in Liberia, a country known not only for mass rape during wartime, but high rates of sexual violence before the war.

Rape is the country’s most frequently reported crime, the Overseas Development Institute found in a 2014 report, accounting for more than one-third of sexual violence cases. The U.K.-based think tank says adolescent girls are the primary targets and almost 40 percent of perpetrators are adult men known to victims.

Poverty, the lasting trauma of sexual violence and the burden of premature, unwanted pregnancies are all reasons numerous analysts say help explain why Liberian girls have a secondary school completion rate of merely 9 percent; half that of the opposite sex.

James Mugo Muriithi, an officer in the gender advisory unit of the U.N.’s Liberian mission, says his team is most preoccupied with strengthening the county offices of Liberia’s gender ministry during the transition.

The team is working to decentralize the services of the U.N. mission to ensure all of Liberia (as opposed to just its capital of Monrovia) is being accounted for. This has meant handing off the work of UNMIL field offices in gathering data relevant to gender-responsiveness to the U.N.’s affiliated country teams in divisions like UNICEF and UN Women.

The U.N. is working as hard as possible to ensure that Liberia’s justice system can carry on human rights-based approaches to handling sexual and gender-based violence cases, Muriithi says.

He credits the mission’s work alongside local women in its peacebuilding and advocacy efforts as one of the operation’s biggest gains in gender responsiveness.

“I think there could be several challenges like any other country that is coming from conflict that require structure, and long-term and medium-term measures,” Muriithi says. “Some of those issues are pertinent. Some are fears. But the question is: how do the government, the people of Liberia and other partners support them to move from some of these challenges?”

Nonetheless, Kula V. Fofana does worry about what will happen to prosecution of gender-based crimes without UNMIL’s neutral and authoritative monitoring of local police stations.  Fofana, the 27-year-old assistant minister of youth development at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, based in Monrovia, spoke with Women’s eNews recently by Skype. She says local police officers often blame female victims for their sexual and domestic abuse, which makes officers feel entitled to throw out cases.

“Sometimes when you try to take a case to the police station, the police try to compromise it because the police officers live in the community,” Fofana says. “So if a girl or a woman carries a complaint, sometimes you see the police taking sides.”

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