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By Hanna Smidt(*)

See historical note, below

Free photos available – see below.

The following feature is issued as part of a 25 November - 10 December 2004 "Wings of a Dove" campaign by churches and church-related organizations around the world. During the campaign, worship services and prayer vigils, discussions and exhibitions will promote increased public awareness on violence against women and children, in an attempt to bring justice and healing to those who are suffering from violence.

"We suffered a lot. And as a result, we are still suffering," says Rita Wheazor, the director of War-Affected Women in Liberia (WAMIL). Rita, like many other Liberian women during Liberia's 14-year-long civil war, has experienced violence that was aimed at them only because they were women.

Sexual and gender-based violence was a major weapon of intimidation in Liberia, as it is in armed conflicts and wars elsewhere. Rita herself was sexually violated during the war, and her infant daughter was raped and killed. Coming together and sharing the story of her suffering with those of other women gave birth to WAMIL, Rita explains. "When we came together the first time in a garage, we prayed together. 'All is lost,' the women said to me. 'We are nothing. Nobody came for us. We don’t think Jesus loves us anymore.'"

But Rita would not accept that Jesus had abandoned them as victims of this violence. She insisted on them staying together and finding meaning in chaos. "Now we are the war-affected women for Jesus. We have managed to get all our legal documents. And sometimes people and organizations come to help us."

WAMIL is less than two years old. It works to provide psychological and limited material support to Liberian women affected by the war. In a meagre shelter, Rita brings women together to talk honestly about their painful experiences, naming unimaginable violence and abuse. The Concerned Christian Community, an independent organization, and the Liberian Council of Churches, support WAMIL's work to reach out to the women victims of the war, whose experiences often go unheard and also unspoken because they are experienced as shameful and dishonourable.

“After that experience when they raped my daughter to death, I just wanted to die. I wanted to drown myself. But there were women who came to sympathize with me. When they came, we all started crying and sharing our stories. There was one woman – they killed her husband and raped her two girls right in front of her. They raped her seven year-old granddaughter, who bled for three days before she died. Coming together and sharing stories with those other women - their stories, coupled with my own - gave birth to this organization.” Rita Wheazor, director of War-Affected Women in Liberia

Systematic rape: a weapon of intimidation

In 2003, fourteen years of civil war ended in Liberia when rebels and the

interim government signed a peace accord. The UN is currently overseeing the peacekeeping efforts, which include disarmament of tens of thousands of former rebels and the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. Elections are planned for 2005.

During the war, everyone in Liberia suffered. Whoever you meet can tell stories about losing family members, having to flee again and again, having their homes looted and burned, being harassed, abused, forced to work and/or to fight.

But women were subjected to distinctive abuse for reasons linked specifically to their being women. Rebel fighters often raped women and killed men on a systematic basis. Sometimes women were raped first and then killed. In Liberia today, women survivors count their blessings in terms of whether or not they were raped, or ‘disgraced’ (a euphemism that is sometimes used).

The violence included individual and gang rapes, and forced "marriages" to the men who raped them, where women were obliged to cook, clean, wash clothes, and have sex with their captors. Some women also fought in the conflict, which did not preclude their being sex slaves as well. Many, some of them children at the time, now care for the children born of those rapes. Many women were abandoned by their husbands because of the stigma connected with rape; others are considered not worth marrying for the same reason. Still others suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. And so their suffering continues. More women and girl-children than were killed have survived with tremendous wounds to their bodies and souls, assaults on their dignity, their feelings of self-worth and their future.

"We have become beggars," Rita says. "Between all of us women here, I think we have 300 children out of school. We can’t afford the school fees. Women come to me begging for 5 or 10 Liberian dollars for rice. People come to ask for soap to wash their clothes."

Where is justice?

In a still tense and unstable situation, where ex-combatants have handed in their arms, repatriation is beginning, and preparations for next year’s elections are underway, there seem to be no consequences for the perpetrators of the violence. They walk the streets and are recognized by their victims.

"16 armed men jumped over the fence, burst the gate and came into our apartment. They took cell phones, money - everything. I had my children – my son, my daughter, my two nephews, my nurse – with me. A boy with a hammer came towards me and said “This woman is for me.” He hit my head with the hammer. He pulled down my jeans in order to rape me. My little daughter started screaming. And the man grabbed my screaming child from my side and knocked her down and started raping her. He just grabbed her from me, raped her to death, and laid her to the side.” Rita Wheazor

Not only do the ex-combatants walk freely in the streets, but they are financially compensated when they bring in their arms. They are offered trauma-healing workshops and skill-training, and encouraged to go to school. Such efforts and opportunities are not available to most of those who were not engaged in the war. For peace to have a fair chance, it needs to be invested in. The perpetrators of the war must have incentives to prefer peace. Yet this can be difficult to accept for women who are surviving on very little, who carry the wounds of the violence they suffered, and who see their violators apparently being rewarded.

Why, although sexual and gender-based violence in war is widely documented, is it not punished? And why do victims not receive the same benefits as their rapists? According to Human Rights watch, "Abuses against women are relentless, systematic, and widely tolerated, if not explicitly condoned," and "perpetrators of sexual violence continue to enjoy near- complete impunity." Women’s trauma-healing, gender-sensitive humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and peace-building efforts, and conflict prevention all continue to be under-prioritized.

"The rebels and fighters killed and raped, but who has come to our aid? They just go free. I saw him – the boy that killed my child. I know who he is and I will never forget him. He had small earrings in his right ear. And nothing happens to him. We are still living with the same people, we see them every day. They see us. There is no justice in Liberia."Rita Wheazor

Finding hope in Christ

Sexual and gender-based violence, in times of peace as well as war, is a human rights issue. In war, the rights of women and children are violated because they are women and children. Sexual and gender-based equality is a matter of human rights and of justice.

Organizations like WAMIL, which ensure that women come together to name their suffering and pray together, are beginnings. Articulating and naming events and experiences is an important part of any healing process. Liberians in general are a very open people, willing and able to speak about the war, but experiences of this nature that are thought of as shameful and dishonourable are difficult to articulate.

As a war-affected woman herself, Rita speaks out in the middle of this silence, telling not only of experiences that can lead to despair and hopelessness, but witnessing to a sense of justice in a country where justice seems so far away. Although brought down, she insists on the dignity and rights of women – even those who find it difficult to move past the shame and who cannot put words to their own sufferings. With very few means and in a setting where everyone is struggling to regain some sense of normalcy, Rita takes leadership. She reminds others of the consequences of war that often go unaccounted for when fighting stops, namely the wounds that people carry with them because they survived it.

"Now we are the war-affected women for Jesus," Rita says. Churches should be inspired by and support women in this work of liberation; so that not only are there war-affected women who turn to Jesus, but that Jesus through churches, individuals and organizations might also turn to war-affected women and those who suffer from gender-based and sexual violence.

Churches have much work yet to do to ensure that women can experience justice in the face of violence. Churches must use their voices and influence to speak out against the human rights abuses that women experience because they are women. They must be willing to speak about and address events even if they are considered shameful and unimaginable. And they must continue at the Liberian level, but also at international levels, to be helpful in creating spaces for articulation and healing of sexual and gender-based violence.

Women in Liberia who, more often than not, find comfort and meaning in their faith in Jesus in spite of their sufferings, are breaking the silence and thus attempting to restore their lives. And this is one of the miraculous things happening in Liberia – that faith in God and the presence of God in the lives and stories of many women in spite of their experiences, testifies to a possibility of faith in life and hope even when life has been taken away and hope seemingly killed.

(*)Hanna Smidt is an intern with the World Council of Churches. She travelled to Liberia from October 14-25, 2004 for the WCC's Uprooted People's programme in Africa, and conducted interviews to learn about the role of churches and of faith in times of conflict.


Liberia was created in 1847 by freed former American slaves, who bought the land from local chiefs. The descendants of these settlers, the so-called Americo-Liberians, held political power in Liberia until 1980, when the president was assassinated in a coup led by an army officer, Samuel Doe. While Doe's coup marked the end of the minority Americo-Liberians' dominance, it also ushered in a period of instability.

In coming to power, Doe suspended the constitution, but promised a swift return to civilian rule. In 1984, he allowed the return of political parties, and was elected as the nation's first indigenous president in 1985.

By the later 1980s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in a civil war. The dissidents of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front overran much of the countryside in 1989, and executed Doe in 1990. Fighting intensified as the rebels splintered, and fought each other, the Liberian army, and West African peacekeepers.

In 1995, a peace agreement was signed, eventually leading to Taylor's election as president. In 1999, Ghana, Nigeria and other governments accused Taylor of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone, while Taylor accused Guinea of supporting Liberian rebels in the North.

In 2000, government forces battled rebels around the town of Voinjama, and engaged in border fighting with Guinean forces, resulting in the displacement of thousands of people. In 2003, the conflict came to a head when Taylor, under international pressure to quit and hemmed in by rebels, stepped down and went into exile.

A transitional, power-sharing government was sworn in later that year to steer the country towards elections in 2005.

Free high resolution photos to accompany this story are available at:

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