Authors: Augustine T. Larmin AND Daniel K. Banini
Site of publication: UNI WIDER
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: December 2022
The first and the second Liberian civil wars have received considerable attention from conflict scholars. The causes of the second Liberian civil war were entrenched in the prior conflict between 1989 and 1996, which saw former rebel leader Charles Taylor emerge as the president. Many accounts have been given of the Liberian civil wars.
However, these accounts are often preoccupied with the historical–political events that led to the wars, how natural resources played into the wars, and the recruitment of child soldiers, among other factors. Although women (as rebels and peace activists) participated in the Liberian civil wars and their activities shaped the conflict contexts, we know little about how their wartime experiences shaped post-conflict gender relations.
In Liberia, women played a crucial role in shaping the trajectory of the wars, their conclusion, and the post-conflict political landscape that emerged. For instance, Black Diamond, an incredible young woman, commanded the main rebel movement, the Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy’s (LURD) all Female Artillery Commandos (WAC) unit. The WAC, which comprised exclusively female combatants, was credited with recapturing the Free Port of Monrovia after an intense battle with the Anti-Terrorist Unit of the Charles Taylor regime in 2003.
Women and their participation in civil war
In recent years, scholars have also been examining the factors that push rebel groups to recruit women and those that drive women to join armed groups when allowed to do so. For instance, one study examines how women’s prior professional experiences, such as their social, political, and economic activities, influence rebels’ decisions to deploy them in combat roles and their desire to pursue such roles when made available.
A few studies analyse the factors that push women to join organized armed groups. For instance, Alison reveals a combination of motivations for women to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Irish Republican Army.
These include societal insecurities in an ethno-national community, individual perceptions of insecurity, and gendered vulnerabilities. Others include witnessing the killing of a loved one and the desire to revenge their death; observed or perceptions of repression at the hands of state security apparatus; disruption of their education; poverty; sexual violence; and female emancipatory ideologies. That women have developed a reputation for using violence as much as their male counterparts, as Cohen argues, can perhaps be explained by the need of women combatants to compete for status and recognition in a traditionally patriarchal context.
Women’s place in pre-war Liberia
Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa, with a population of 5.3 million. Women account for approximately 49 per cent of the population.1 Liberia’s history is replete with a conservative society and a patriarchal system that elevated the status of men over women. Liberia’s patriarchal system prevented women and girls from accessing the opportunities available to their male counterparts. Historically, in some chiefdoms, a man’s wealth was measured by the number of wives he had, with women treated as instruments of profit and exchanged for taxes and debts.2 Chiefs parted way with their wives during extreme conditions to settle high-stake disputes, making women instruments of truce or peace deals.
Liberian women achieved universal suffrage during the 1951 elections, in which indigenous Liberians who owned property and Americo-Liberian women were allowed to vote for the first time; before that period, only male descendants of Americo-Liberians had a political right or the right to vote. The 1951 election brought with it relatively increased political freedom, and the right to vote for Liberian women gradually improved. However, for several decades after that election, women were rarely included in national political decision-making processes, such as in cabinet-level positions and local governments.
Women’s place in Liberia’s civil wars
Women participated in the first and second civil wars. They participated at two broad levels and performed different roles as members of rebel groups and as peaceful demonstrators. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), about 20 per cent of rebel fighters were women. Women were involved in all the rebel groups, although they were more active in some than others. According to Aning, women were instrumental during the formative stages of the Charles Taylor-led National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). This rebel group sought to overthrow President Samuel K. Doe. Doe was subsequently captured and killed on 9 September 1990 by Prince Johnson and his Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), a breakaway faction of Charles Taylor’s NPFL.
The Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign also directly engaged various rebel groups and regimes, including NPFL, INPFL, Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and the Council of State of Liberia, which was the power-sharing government. The WIPNET, which emerged from the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, capitalized on the burgeoning women’s peace activism to end the war and search for social justice. Its members organized sit-ins, demonstrations, and mass protests.
Women’s political representation in post-war Liberia
Women’s motivations for joining the rebel movements varied. Some joined the rebellion for genuine reasons, but others got involved in serving their parochial interests. For instance, evidence suggests that, in the early days of the conflict, some women maintained or amassed social capital in their role as agents of war and peace. Women combatants joined new social units to be rewarded with social status and a means to earn a living or survive.
Others also got involved because they wanted genuine change. Women’s experiences during the conflict as rebels and peace negotiators helped them become aware of their potential power once the conflict ended. Their wartime experiences as rebels and peace activists helped to improve the conditions of their political power relative to men.
The election of EJS appeared to be a significant factor for Liberia’s women, and most respondents discussed its impact on the country’s politics and representation of women. Once in office, EJS appointed women to sensitive positions and as heads of institutions. In 2005, a 30 per cent gender quota was set for women in the candidate lists of political parties, requiring each political party to ensure that 30 per cent of the candidates on their election lists were women (UNDP 2022). Although the threshold was not achieved, it introduced crucial changes that increased women’s political representation. Women played enhanced roles in the National Transitional Government of Liberia, and their representation increased after the war.
Women’s social and economic changes after the war
It is paramount to note that women and children suffered disproportionally in the Liberian conflicts. Women were purposely targeted and raped during the war. Many former rebels we talked to mentioned that they had directly engaged in the war because of abuse suffered at the hands of the rebels and regime forces. This abuse took the form of rape and the killing of the victims’ parents. About two-thirds of the interviewees indicated that their motive for engaging in rebel activities was predicated on the desire to survive and protect friends, relatives, and immediate family members.
Following the end of the second civil war in 2003, the Equal Rights Act was revised to grant women the right to own or share property with their male counterparts within the customary marriage system. This inheritance law prohibits females under the age of 16 from being given in customary marriage to a man and protects widows from engaging in restricted marriages to deceased kin. In her first year in office, EJS signed the violence against women legislation into law (UN Women 2016a). The sexual violence legislation or anti-rape law requires ten-years’ or lifetime imprisonment, depending on the severity of the rape.