Women Rebuild Community in Liberia
In the aftermath of two violent civil wars that lasted more than 14 years (from 1989-2003) and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, Liberia was faced with social, political and economic devastation as it endeavored to mend internal fractures and heal from the trauma of violence. Rebuilding a sense of community and country was a universal struggle, but reintegration was particularly difficult for those who fought during the war. Among the most vulnerable: female ex-combatants, who were stigmatized for their involvement in the war, and also shamed for the sexual violence that most of them experienced.
“If the community shuns them, they have no practical way of meeting needs for food and shelter,” explained Ginny Morrison, Liberian Initiative Co-Director. “Since the war, people have had to rebuild their entire society, and part of that is…learning how to live alongside people with very different views.”
Public Conversations Project partnered with four Liberian organizations and international peacebuilding nonprofit Mediators Beyond Borders (MBB) to explore how the healing of women could restore community and promote other types of recovery. The pilot project, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” tapped into women’s ability to make change at the community level.
The partners worked to create conditions in which women ex-combatants could build strong relationships in their communities, while learning permacululture, which would provide them with a consistent livelihood. The project also increased the capacity of Liberian peacebuilding organization by training them in dialogue facilitation and building resilience after trauma. By helping these women become self-sustaining and reintegrated into society, the project hopes that they will be able to contribute to the rebuilding of their communities.
“There is incredible potential for these women, some of whom have played leadership roles,” remarked project co-director Prabha Sankaranarayan. “Think of what is possible if these women are re-empowered but in a way that makes them a part of their communities. That’s the potential I see.”
Following training in dialogue facilitation and leadership, recent trainees immediately put their skills to use in a situation where communication had broken down, planning and facilitating two simultaneous dialogues. Partner staff incorporated their new knowledge into the mentoring of community staff, who modeled new skills among their towns and villages. By increasing the community’s capacity to support residents, the dialogue training laid the groundwork to resolve conflicts, implement development projects, and reweave the community fabric.
Bill Saa, project coordinator, noted the value of rebuilding relationships in the wake of the civil war: “[The women will] be able to discuss their issues—the issues they face in the community, in their families—and will be able to support each other in finding ways to move through those issues.”
"The dialogue facilitation training aimed to build capacity in our Liberian partner organizations by creating a cadre of facilitators who can help their organizations and communities constructively address a broad range of differences that they may encounter in the future. Dialogue participants found out that they can actually listen to each other and still work together, which was news to them."
We work alongside people who live there; it’s not about importing our values and practices. It’s about supplementing theirs.
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This has been quite different from other discussions in Liberia about peace. While many processes have been about how to reform ex-combatants, this was about how we may hold our own views but live together peacefully.
I learned that I can build relationships, that I can be connected to anybody who I want to be connected to, no matter how difficult it is
As a former rebel, I believe that if we had known about dialogue, perhaps we would not have had a civil war.”