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Case #173

Title:
Women's pressure group helps bring about disarmament before elections

Summary:

The roots of ethnic conflict in Liberia can be traced back to the founding of the state in 1822 by a group of freed American slaves. From the very birth of the nation, the freed slaves, the 'Americo Liberians' monopolised all positions of power and authority, excluding virtually all the indigenous groups from the interior, whom they considered 'savages'. Resentment finally boiled over in 1980 when a group of men led by Samuel K Doe stormed the presidential palace, killed the President and took over the state. A period of violent confrontations ensued which eventually grew into what one commentator called "a horrendous slaughter waged along ethnic lines" between the Krahn and Gio groups.

As the war raged, Mary Brownell, a retired school teacher, came up with a 'wild idea' -- to form a women's pressure group to speak out against the war. For some time she had been struck by the silence of Liberian women in the face of overwhelming suffering. Now was a time for change. With a few friends she decided to organise a public meeting at Monrovia's city hall. In front of a packed audience, Brownell spoke. 'We can't just sit here any longer. We must get our voices heard and make our presence felt ...We want to be a part of the decision making policies governing our country.'

By January 1994 the Liberian Women's Initiative (LWI) was born. Its primary aim was to attend the peace talks and appeal directly to the warring parties to end the bloodshed. Initially LWI chose to focus on one issue that affected everyone.

That issue was disarmament before elections, which had already proved exceptionally difficult to accomplish. The previous year, the Cotonou Accord had been signed, which like its predecessor, the Yamoussoukro Accord (1991) made provisions for ceasefires and disarmament before elections. Both accords had unravelled as the factions continued fighting.

LWI's task, then, was far from easy. Against formidable odds, including a severe lack of finances, LWI succeeded in sending two women to participate in the Akosombo meeting in Accra, Ghana, where leaders were desperately trying to bolster the Cotonou Accord. Despite being recognised as observers only they made their presence felt, literally waiting in the corridors that led to the meeting rooms and lobbying every individual that walked past. While the effect of their presence is unclear, it is understood that many of the faction and political leaders were impressed by the LWI's tenacity and determination in putting forward their vision and proposal for peace.

Between the formal negotiations that punctuated the ongoing conflict, LWI increased its advocacy work, contacting organisations and governments around the world in order to focus attention on the situation in Liberia. They also appeared on national and international radio and television programmes in order to gain more public support for their work.

Two further major meetings took place, at both of which LWI was present. At the last of these, in August 1996 - an ECOWAS summit in Abuja - Ruth Perry, a founding member of LWI, became head of the Council of State of the transitional government. Under her stewardship a new timetable for disarmament was agreed. Shortly afterwards, disarmament finally began and the LWI mobilised women to do what they could to support the process. As a result many women went to the disarmament sites to hand out drinks of water and sandwiches to the fighters who were handing in their weapons.

The disarmament exercise was largely successful, with 85% of combatants voluntarily disarmed. As the country geared up for elections, LWI sprung into action, training hundreds of election monitors as well as mobilising women throughout the country to vote. The elections, which brought Charles Taylor to power, signalled the end of the war.

Comments:

So what impact did LWI have? 'I say without any reservation that LWI made a great difference at that peace table' says Brownell. While LWI certainly cannot claim the greatest share of the credit for the eventual success of the peace process, there is little doubt that theirs was a significant contribution. Their relentless lobbying for peace and disarmament at the highest levels, coupled with their ability to mobilise large sections of the population to call for an end to the fighting was a very important component in the process that ended 7 years of war.
Location: Liberia
Action: Direct
Setting: Third World
Extent of Action: Regional (within a country)
Issues: Peace/Conflict Resolution
Year(s): 1993
Outcome partially successful
Source: War Prevention Works: 50 Stories of people resolving conflict, Oxford Research Group

Contacts:

Read the ACCORD issue dedicated to the Liberian Peace Process (published by Conciliation Resources www.cr.org). Also see the report "Women at the Peace Table: Making a Difference" (UNIFEM, New York, 2000) and Best Practices in peace building and non violent conflict resolution (UNIFEM, New York, 1999) for more about LWI and other significant women's contributions to peacemaking. Also visit www.fasngo.org for more about women peace builders in Africa.
Prepared By: rja, 11/01
Rating: 1
 
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