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Feature: Liberia's displaced women learn to lead the way home

Feature: Liberia's displaced women learn to lead the way home

The UN refugee agency has organised gender leadership workshops in camps for returnees and internally displaced Liberian women around Monrovia, empowering them to make decisions and play a role in reintegration when they eventually return to their home areas.
17 May 2004
UNHCR's gender leadership training at Browns Town IDP camp, near Monrovia.

BROWNS TOWN, Liberia (UNHCR) - Georgia Power, 47, learnt about her rights the hard way. Abandoned by her husband more than 10 years ago, she was left to fend for herself and her eight children in Browns Town, near the Liberian capital of Monrovia. "He didn't care about the children dropping out of school," she recalls.

When civil war broke out in the 1990s, they fled to Lofa county in northern Liberia, paying $150 for the transport to Voinjama near the border with Guinea. In 2001, as the conflict subsided, they embarked on a long and difficult journey home. "We came back on foot, hiding in the bush from time to time," says Power. Two of her children died from malnourishment during the trip.

Back in Browns Town, she wanted to bring her husband to court but lacked the means to do so. Her family threatened her and advised her to return to him. Under pressure, she escaped to the nearby centre for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Power and the other returnee women at Browns Town IDP camp receive relief items from the UN refugee agency. However, she says there is not enough food for everyone and sent two of her children to live with relatives in another village.

Her experience was one of the many stories recounted during the gender leadership workshop organised by UNHCR in mid-April. She was among the 200 women and men from five IDP and returnee camps who participated in the UNHCR workshop to develop the leadership skills of displaced and refugee women in Liberia. The workshop was also intended to prepare the women for leadership positions and making decisions in the public sphere.

With the vast displacement of families during the war, women in both rural and urban settings are increasingly finding themselves as single heads of households with large numbers of dependants, said UNHCR Gender Advisor Joanina Karugaba. She also emphasised that women's access to health facilities and information on reproductive health remains an area of grave concern with the rising incidence of unwanted pregnancies, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. For the single teenage abductees or young mothers who have returned, many are facing pregnancy, childbirth, social isolation, stigma and trauma on their own, at a young and vulnerable age.

"It is crucial to provide opportunities for refugee and returnee women as well as men to explore concepts of gender and to undertake specialised gender training," said UNHCR Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello.

He noted, however, that while structures have been created for women to participate as equals, there is still much reluctance as they do not feel they are adequately equipped with the relevant skills, they may not have the support of the men, and there may not be adequate social support systems in place for child care and business interests.

"Leadership training should target not only women but also men to raise awareness on concepts of gender equality and the need for women to be active participants in decision-making processes," stressed Okello.

The training sessions are facilitated by a team of four trainers consisting of three women and one man. Women and men attend the sessions separately and hold a joint session at the end of the exercise.

Before the workshop, the majority of the participants thought that "gender" was a word that referred only to women. After the training sessions, Powers explained, "Gender means having the same human rights for women and men. Now my role is to tell people what to do when human rights are violated." She added that the gender equality training is an opportunity women should not miss.

Among the topics discussed were gender roles and relations, women's human rights, and the roles and responsibilities of camp committees. Participants also learnt about personal empowerment, how to run effective meetings and handle conflict, as well as mediation, presentation, advocacy and planning skills.

The sessions were interactive, especially when discussing the violation of human rights and what actions should be taken. Another session focused on the spirit of self-examination as an act of openness, courage and responsibility to serve people better. "It is not sufficient to say sorry when you plan to make the same mistake again," said Power.

UNHCR has implemented its gender leadership project in five camps in Montserrado county near Monrovia and Sinje in western Liberia so far this year. The workshop is part of initiatives to promote gender equality and participation of women in the reintegration process. In 2001, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers made five commitments addressed to women to enhance their capacity and roles in refugee camps.

The UN refugee agency is currently assisting some 6,000 Liberian returnees who came on their own and 300,000 internally displaced Liberians in camps around Monrovia.