From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



MONROVIA, LIBERIA – ┬áBehind rows of razor wire, a machine gun peeking
over the sandbags is trained on the road below. This is just one of
many fortified compounds in the Congo Town suburb of Liberia’s war-
ravaged capital, Monrovia. But this compound is different, because
everyone inside – from the armed guards to the cooks responsible for
the inviting scent of curry that wafts around at lunchtime – is

The 103 Indian women who have called this compound home since January
make up the United Nations’ first-ever all-female peacekeeping unit.
The women have quickly become part of Monrovia’s urban landscape in
their distinctive blue camouflage fatigues and flak jackets. They
guard the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, patrol the streets day and
night, control crowds at rallies and soccer games, and respond to
calls for armed back-up from the national police who, unlike the
Indian unit, do not carry weapons.

Liberian and UN officials hope their presence will help inspire
Liberian women to join a fledgling police force struggling to recruit
female officers. The all-female unit also signifies a revolution in UN
peacekeeping, which has been rocked by rape and abuse scandals in
recent years, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.
Analysts say an increase in female peacekeepers will help limit abuses
perpetrated by the very people sent to safeguard the rights of those
already traumatized by conflict.

“You get [these abuses] not just with peacekeepers but with soldiers
in general, and it gets worse the further they are from home and the
more destitute the local population,” says Richard Reeve, research
fellow at the Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The UN will
never get rid of the problem, but they are really dealing with it and
putting changes into practice.”

In the past three years, 319 peacekeepers worldwide have been
investigated for abuse; of those, 179 were repatriated or dismissed.
Yet the UN cannot prosecute troops. That must be done by the
contributing country.

Force may deter attacks on women

Commander Seema Dhundia says that her unit is there primarily to
support the embryonic Liberia National Police (LNP), but she
recognizes that the presence of her officers will also help raise
awareness of and respect for women in Liberia, and in peacekeeping.
“Seeing women in strong positions, I hope, will reduce the violence
against women,” she says.

Earlier this month UNMIL stated that in 2006 there were 30 reported
cases of rape by UN personnel, who number more than 15,000 in Liberia,
down from 45 in 2005.

Alan Doss, head of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), says the UN is
committed to tackling the issue. “What we’re talking about is very
much the exception to the rule, but if the presence of [the Indian
unit of] women helps to make the point that this is not acceptable
behavior, then, quite frankly, anything we can do beyond what we’re
doing now is welcome.”

The women-only unit will also help redress the acknowledged gender
imbalance in peacekeeping missions: At the end of 2006 only 4 percent
of UN police deployed worldwide were female officers. Trailblazing has
its challenges, and, Ms. Dhundia admits, there can be some prejudice
when her unit arrives on the scene. “Initially there might be some
apprehension as to the professional competency of the females,” she
says, “but when the troops prove their worth, then they are accepted,
and there are not any problems.”

But many women remain vulnerable

In 2005, Liberia elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female
president. Women head the justice system, the department of home
affairs, and the domestic police force. With the UN’s first-ever
female-only peacekeeping unit, Liberia should be a leader in women’s
rights and sexual equality. But this is not the case: rape and sexual
violence are pervasive.

A report published this month by the South Africa-based development
agency ActionAid says that, “in the post-conflict context, rape is on
the increase and indeed rape is currently the most reported serious
crime in Liberia.” In 2006, there were more than 350 reported rapes,
but the real figure is likely to be far higher, because many attacks
go unreported or are dismissed by village elders or police, according
to the report. Refugees International estimates that up to 40 percent
of Liberian women were raped during the 14-year civil war that ended
in 2003.

The presence of the all-female Indian unit, it is hoped, will also
help encourage Liberian women to join the police force. “Women see us
out on the streets every day putting on uniforms, carrying heavy
[weapons], and performing our duties,” says Dhundia, “It will
definitely get them inspired and motivated to come forward.”

Recruiting females can be difficult

Although all-female units are nothing new in Dhundia’s native India,
where they have existed since 1986, in Liberia the LNP is struggling
to recruit women. More than 2,000 new police officers have so far been
trained. The target is for 20 percent of the force to be women, but
today only 5 percent are.

Encouraging women to join is difficult, as it challenges prevailing
stereotypes. More to the point, female candidates often lack the
necessary higher education. “The tradition is that, if there is not
enough money, you educate the boys, not the girls,” explains UN Police
spokesman Gabriel Tibayungwa.

To combat this, a program of accelerated learning started in recent
weeks for 150 Liberian women. One of the new participants is Wachten
Beh, a slim 31-year-old with a mop of short dreadlocks. Ms. Beh is
glad for the opportunity to complete her higher education and looks
forward to serving in the police force. “I believe that everybody has
a right – a woman has a right – to be what she wants to be,” she says.

Source: Christian science Monitor



Can Africa’s first woman president get Liberia back on track?

By Emira Woods

WASHINGTON – When Condoleezza Rice traveled to Liberia to celebrate
the inauguration of Africa’s first woman president Monday, it was an
inspiring sign that women of African descent are reaching new levels
of political leadership and recognition. Yet Liberia’s new president,
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, will need more than photo-ops with the
America’s first female African-American secretary of State to lift her
country out of the ruins of two decades of war. Dr. Rice and other US
officials who traveled to the inauguration must bring a serious
commitment to help jump-start Liberia’s economic recovery.

Ties between the United States and this country of 3 million people
run deep. Liberia was founded in 1822 as a haven for liberated African-
Americans and even in its early years, the country received
substantial US support. After civil strife erupted in the 1980s, more
than 100,000 Liberians migrated across the Atlantic again, and their
remittances helped keep many families in their homeland alive during
the war that ended two years ago.

Now that Liberia is struggling to transition to peace and democracy,
the US government cannot turn its back on this resource-rich, yet
fragile country.

One important step is returning Liberia’s stolen wealth. Indicted war
criminal and former Liberian president Charles Taylor and his cohorts
have reportedly stashed more than $3 billion in Swiss, US, and other
international banks. In the post 9-11 world, the US has developed new
and effective tools for tracking the finances of international
terrorists. These tools could also be used to locate and return the
ill- gotten gains of those who have terrorized and robbed their own
people. Returning the funds the Taylor regime stashed in US bank
accounts would help Liberia get back on its feet, while deterring
future corruption.

The Bush administration should also cancel the 30 percent of Liberia’s
crippling $3.3 billion debt that is owed to the United States. The
last time a high-level US government official went to Liberia was 20
years ago during the Samuel Doe dictatorship. Under Mr. Doe’s watch,
American military aid to Liberia, often in the form of loans,
increased 10-fold. Doe also racked up enormous debts as his cronies
stole elections and built their machinery of repression. Why must the
Liberian people now foot the bill?

In 2004, a senior US Treasury official promised 100 percent
cancellation of debts owed to the US as well as support for
cancellation of Liberia’s debts to other international institutions.
Nearly two years later, these promises remain unfulfilled.
Particularly given President Johnson-Sirleaf’s experience as a former
senior loan officer of the World Bank, there couldn’t be a better time
to negotiate the complete cancellation of Liberia’s illegitimate

US officials should also use their clout to get US corporations that
operate in Liberia to stop exploiting the Liberian people. For
example, recent court cases filed in Liberia and in California have
charged Bridgestone/Firestone with employing forced labor, child
labor, and destructive environmental practices on the company’s vast
Liberian rubber plantation. According to the International Labor
Rights Fund, the company imposes such a high daily quota that workers
have no choice but to bring wives and children to help them tap rubber
trees if they are to earn the measly daily wage of $3.19.

In 2004, the US Congress earmarked $200 million in aid for Liberia,
but more could be done to ensure that this money actually helps the
poor. Thus far, an estimated $100 million of these funds has been
allocated to the US private military company DynCorp to train and
equip 2,000 Liberian soldiers. With an illiteracy rate close to 80
percent and the increased vulnerability of women and children to
disease and HIV/AIDS, Liberia desperately needs resources for the core
building blocks of development: health and education.

The Johnson-Sirleaf administration could well be the last best hope
for peace and security in Liberia and West Africa, given the wide-
ranging impact of Liberia’s conflict. US support for Africa’s first
democratically elected woman president must move beyond dignitaries
attending her inaugural festivities to a set of concrete policies and
practices that help give Liberia the quick infusion of revenue needed
to stabilize its economy and society.

The return of stolen assets, debt cancellation, responsible
investment, and aid targeted to human needs could help transform a
symbolic trip into a turning point where the US begins, at long last,
a meaningful and mutually beneficial engagement with Liberia.

{Emira Woods, originally from Liberia, is co-director of Foreign
Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.}

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