Women wearing their WIPNET T-shirts plan a peace jamboree the day before the Liberian election in October 2017. (Carter Center)
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first woman to lead an African country. Her two terms in office ended with elections last month since, like the United States, presidents in Liberia are barred from serving more than two terms.
Affectionately known as “Ma Ellen,” Sirleaf took office at the end of a 14-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 Liberians were killed.
Sickened and fatigued by war, thousands of Liberian women, through mass action, brought about an end to the conflict in 2003.
These same women took great risks to elect Sirleaf on her promise to sustain peace and make gender equality central to her administration’s agenda.
Some women hid their sons’ voter ID cards to prevent them from voting for Sirleaf’s opponent; others tricked the young men into exchanging their cards for beer; still others managed market stalls while their female owners went to register to vote and watched babies so that mothers could vote on Election Day.
These women, many of whom belong to the Women in Peace Building Network (WIPNET), are identifiable by their white T-shirts with blue WIPNET insignia. They are a powerful, widely respected group for what they have accomplished and continue to fight for.
When Sirleaf came to power in 2005, the world was electrified. On Inauguration Day in January 2006, proud Liberians, world leaders and dignitaries watched as she took the oath of office.
Sirleaf singled out the women in the peace movement, thanking them for their courage, and committed to supporting their agenda. The Sirleaf administration kept some of its promises but with notable challenges. Liberia has tough rape laws, but weak enforcement mechanisms, and in 2016, Parliament signed into a law a new domestic violence bill but removed a ban on female genital mutilation.
At the end of Sirleaf’s two terms in office, peace has held, but the results of progress on gender equality are mixed.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shares a laugh with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia in November 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Today, some of the powerful grassroots women who brought Sirleaf to power are at the forefront of running what are known as peace huts. Spread across the country, the purposes of these huts are to put women in charge of mediating domestic abuse and other disputes before they escalate, to empower women through entrepreneurial opportunities and to educate them about their rights.
By and large, Liberian women and girls are well aware of their rights, and especially those enshrined in the UN Security Council Resolution 1325.
Adopted in 2000, the resolution recognizes that women bear the brunt and horrors of war, and calls for women’s full participation in conflict prevention, resolution and peace-building. Peace huts in Liberia are instrumental in teaching women — including those not formally educated — about these rights.
Peace huts work for gender equality, peace and human rights. But they do much more. The Ebola crisis of 2014 led to the deaths of an estimated 11,315 people and strained already fragile health-care systems. Women who ran peace huts in some of the communities stepped in to help the sick and dying, and some of them died in the process.