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Liberian women pray as the nation heads to the polls

Buffeted by years of civil war, Liberian women – led by newly named Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee – are praying for a peaceful and successful Oct. 11 election, and hoping that fire-mouthed politicians don't drag their country back to war.

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In 2005, with the assistance of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and its peacekeepers in Liberia, the nation held its first internationally monitored elections and saw President Sirleaf become the first female head of state in Africa. These elections will be the first elections since Liberia’s civil war to be conducted by the National Electoral Commission, who are aided by UNMIL and international observers and observers from ECOWAS and the African Union, and are seen by many as being a test for Liberia and its ability to maintain order and security.

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But the special representative of the Secretary-General in Liberia, Ellen Margrethe Løj, says that security concerns still remain, particularly due to the post-election violence in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire that pushed an estimated 170,000 refugees into Liberia, along with combatants and arms.

“I do not see the consequences of the situation in the Cote d’Ivoire and the elections being directly linked, but they could easily be so depending on how the situation develops,” Ms. Løj told The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a fact that we have more weapons in Liberia than we did a year ago.”

But Løj says that domestic security was still a concern in a country where she said there is a “fragile peace”.

“We are keeping an eye on the situation all across the country.”

Massa Kiadii, Freeman’s mother, was also part of the original woman’s movement. “God brought me here this morning. We came to pray because we are hearing things about the election and people wanting to be violent.”

“They raped me. My son died,” says the petite woman matter-of-factly.

Ms. Kiadii was from Grand Cape Mount County, near the border of Sierra Leone. She was raped by two child soldiers in the sight of her son and lost four children during the war. Three of her children were killed during a battle between rebels in the first war and her 7-year-old son died of starvation in 2002 in Monrovia.

Like many Liberians, she was forced to flee her village and driven toward the capital. She joined the prayer movement when her daughter saw women praying on the same field.

Isatta M. Kamara, also from Grand Cape Mount County, says she has a story that is “too long to tell” and runs off a list of family members she lost during the war.

“I lost my husband and I lost my child," she says. "My father died, my uncle died, my older brother died, most of my people died in the war.”

But women like Ms. Kamara say that things have improved for women and Liberians overall since the war.

“Liberia has changed,” Kamara says. “We can get up and walk around outside and there is no trouble, so we are happy.”

Freeman says the situation for Liberian women has changed significantly since the end of the civil war and since President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the president of Liberia and Africa’s first female head of state.

“Men are beginning to be afraid of women because we are powerful,” she says. “We have a president, we have senators and representatives who are women. We can speak out now… we have rights and know our rights.”

Freeman and the other women see themselves as being responsible for ending the war and believe that God will deliver again and ensure that the elections take place peacefully. But she finishes the interview with a stern statement: “We are warning the political parties, that any political parties, whether they are male or female [headed], that we don’t war and if anyone causes trouble in the country we will expose them; the women will expose them.”

--- [The original version incorrectly stated that former Liberian President Charles Taylor is being tried at the International Criminal Court.]

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