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.

By , Correspondent

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    Over 100 women in Monrovia, in the middle of a sandy soccer field, pray to God so the upcoming Liberian elections will be peaceful.
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In the middle of a sandy soccer field in the Monrovia neighborhood of Sinkor, over 100 women dressed in white sit in the shape of a crucifix hoping to draw God’s eyes down towards the small West African nation of Liberia. They are praying the nation’s elections to be held this month will be peaceful.

As cars zoom past on the facing road, opposite President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s house, the prayers of the women take to the wind – relived traumas from the nation’s bloody civil war that ended seven years ago and pleas for God’s mercy, mixed with prayers for the future.

“Please Papa, I beg you,” says one woman. “We have nowhere to go,” repeats another with closed eyes. Some women weep as they mouth the outlines of a prayer.

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Clouds gather and rain begins to pelt down but the women wrap cloth around their shoulders and faces, place plastic bags on their heads, and continue to call out to God. Many of them endured worse conditions and even slept out in the open field, back when they first formed a women’s movement and prayed for Charles Taylor and the warlords to end Liberia’s bloody 14-year civil war that left over 250,000 people dead and the nation’s infrastructure in tatters.

Bernice Freeman, a senior member of the Women in Peace Building Network, the organization behind the prayers, says the women are praying because they were concerned about some of the statements made by political leaders in the lead up to the lead up to the presidential, legislative, and senate elections all to be held on Oct. 11.

“We are praying because the utterances coming from the political parties are worrisome,” says Ms. Freeman. “Someone has said that they will not listen to the election commission results and the verdict of the international community… it is worrisome… that you say your own results.”

Freeman’s comments come after local media outlets quoted chairman of the main opposition party Congress for Democratic Change Geraldine Doe-Sherrif saying the party would not respect the outcome of the election if there were a discrepancy between the results handed down by the National Electoral Commission and the results they tallied themselves.

Freeman and many of the other women were members of the Liberian Mass Action for Peace (LMAP), in which Muslim and Christian women from all over Liberia gathered near a domestic airfield and a fish market in Monrovia to pray for peace in 2001 during Liberia’s second civil war. The movement was headed by Leymah Gbowee, a woman who had a dream in which she was called on to pray for peace and started a women’s Christian prayer group. Ms. Gbowee was later joined by a Muslim woman named Bah Kenneth and they formed the group (LMAP) that is the subject of the award-winning documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

In 2003, the women went to Accra, Ghana, where talks were being held between then-President Charles Taylor's government and the rebels from Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, and mounted pressure on the parties to commit to a peace agreement, which they ultimately did in August of that year.

Liberia has maintained peace since the end of the civil war, when rebel groups were still controlling the country and President Taylor – who is currently being tried for war crimes at an international court in The Hague – went into exile.

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.

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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