Tuesday, November 24, 2009

HRUSA Blogs from Liberia, Day 7: Women in Liberia

From my short time here, it appears to me that Liberian women are strong, elegant, and too often disrespected. As in many places in Africa, women (and many men, too) carry items on top of their heads. And by items, I mean to tell you I’ve seen HUGE baskets of shoes placed just so such that other shoes can be piled on top balanced on top of a woman’s head….while she had a baby tied to her back….while carrying items in both arms….while gliding over unpaved roads….then leaping buildings in a single bound. Ok, ok, I exaggerate - but only about the last part. The dress here varies for everyone - some wear business attire and others more traditional dress - gorgeous lapas (a long piece of cloth tied around the waist and reaching to ones lower leg or ankles) and dresses that are colorful and classy. Many wear casual t-shirts that would make vintage shirt fans drool. Seeing a guy wearing an “Everyone loves an Irish girl” shirt was fun, and there are “Obama Girl” shirts at every turn, but my favorite is the picture attached here - “A Wise Man Once Said: I don’t know, go ask a girl.” As the woman carrying this container on her head approached to sell a newspaper page full of peanuts to my fellow traveler, I knew I needed a picture.

While the shirt brought a smile to my face, many signs here have not. In a country that elected the first female President in all of Africa, you would hope not to need billboards reading “No Sex for Jobs” or “Stop Rape - It Could Be Your Ma.” Someone involved in training the military here told me that female candidates had to be told to stop washing the clothes of the male candidates. (I wonder if they had to be told more than once?) From what I hear, treatment of women in the interior is much worse than that in Monrovia. There, men can beat “their woman” and then pay the police to not bring any case against them.* The schools in the interior need vast improvement and children there are often needed to help with the farming. As such, most young women living outside of Monrovia do not receive as much education and often have children at a much younger age. And in other areas, it’s not uncommon to have more than one wife at the same time.

As you have probably gathered by now, I like to leave you with a more hopeful note, so will share that I have also had the pleasure to meet a few young women in Monrovia who are enrolled in school and love it. Murals are a popular way of spreading messages here (“Stop Malaria - Use a Mosquito Net for Your Family” and “There’s no cure for HIV - use protection”). One series of murals depicts one of various female leaders here with the caption “Another great Liberian woman - You Could be the Next.” Let’s hope that reaches many young women!

*Speaking of bribes, I forgot to mention that another person and I were stopped at a checkpoint coming back to downtown Friday night. (Note to my parents: stop reading here.) It was past sundown and we were not in a large vehicle that commands respect (read: emblazoned with the logo of an NGO (non-governmental organization) or other established entity like the UN), so the police flagged us down to stop. With flashlights shining in from my side of the car, they asked the driver if he had a license. He did. They paused, looked at me, then asked him to show them what was in the trunk. A few moments later, he returned to the driver’s seat and, as we drove off, said the officer told the driver to “find something for [him].” In response, the driver gave him “small small money.” (Around 40 Liberian dollars, I think.) The driver was clearly frustrated, explaining that the newer officers were the ones who abuse their authority, while the older, better-trained police apparently do not. A few minutes later, we were stopped again by another set of officers. Again, they looked in from the passenger side and the driver explained we’d just been stopped not five minutes ago and nothing had changed since then. They paused and asked if he had his license. Not one to be silent for long, I turned and answered with a firm, “Yes.” (Because being gruff with cops at night in a foreign country is always a good idea.) Another pause. Ok, they said, go ahead. I know some say, “When in Rome…” but, as a lawyer, it’s frustrating to see even the smallest example of corruption in the system. After all, the ultimate impact on the system as a whole and the average citizen’s faith therein is not “small small.”


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

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