Emory Report
November 3, 2008
Volume 61, Number 10



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November 3
, 2008
Women on front line of Liberian justice

Casey Dunning ’07C is administrative coordinator for the Institute for Developing Nations.

Every Tuesday, the West Point Women gather in a dark, tiny cement-block room to discuss the past week’s events and any community issues currently affecting their lives. Many issues come up, including recent incidents of rape and domestic violence, the high rates of teen pregnancy, and the pressing need for income-generating opportunities.

Their gathering place is located in the center of West Point, an urban slum of some 62,000 inhabitants located in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The West Point community is characterized by extreme poverty and the conditions that accompany it: 95 percent unemployment, lack of sanitation, high illiteracy rates, and rampant violence, especially against women.

I had the opportunity to meet with the West Point Women in their community on my most recent trip to Liberia. I work at the Institute for Developing Nations and first went to this small West African country last March as part of IDN’s Working Group on Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and Rule of Law.

On this trip, I went to Monrovia with Alex Barney, a Fellow at Emory Law School’s Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, to gather data on gender-based violence cases and the Liberian justice system in preparation for a research workshop on “Access to Justice” funded by the IDN.

The goal of the workshop was to develop a research project on what happens to GBV cases in the judicial system. This research project is unique in that it also includes a focus on extra-judicial mechanisms of mediation; in other words, the study will explore the alternative, and perhaps preferable, methods that community groups or traditional authorities use to resolve cases that drop out of the formal system.

As we discussed this research project with many of our Liberian colleagues, one partner suggested that we meet with Nelly Cooper, head of the West Point Women. The West Point Women formed their organization in 2002, during the final years of Liberia’s brutal civil war. They organized to address the needs of the women in their community, needs that were overlooked during the war and its aftermath. The West Point Women provide access to emergency care, refuge, and counseling for women who have been raped and battered.

Especially remarkable in light of the extremely high unemployment rate, the West Point Women are completely self-sufficient. Money for a new sewing machine, or a taxi to transport a woman who has been raped to the hospital, comes from a collective pool of dues that women voluntarily offer each week.

Women are asked to give 10 Liberian dollars (about 15 cents) each week to sustain and grow the West Point Women’s community work. The women invest in themselves and their community and get very little assistance from the government or the many international non-governmental organizations that are in Liberia to address GBV.

Alex and I travelled to West Point to meet with Nelly Cooper and four of her West Point colleagues. For about an hour, the women explained in Liberian-English the wide range of services they provided for the women and children in their community.

If a woman was raped in the middle of the night, she found a “West Point Woman” who would see that she received medical attention and had police intervention. If the police were not taking a case of domestic violence seriously, the West Point Women would collectively intervene with the police until the police responded appropriately.

In cases of GBV, a member of the group would travel to the couple’s home to do mediation and offer gender sensitization to the husband, making sure to monitor the couple in later weeks to ensure the violence was not repeated.

In their small office, the West Point Women also offered various skills training, literacy programs, and counseling for young girls and women. While we were there a number of young women, many who were either pregnant or with their babies, came by to use the sewing machines that were lined up against the wall, or to practice weaving ‘country cloth’ on homemade hanging looms.

A table by the door held the results of their work — aprons, bags and woven scarves. The West Point Women understand that providing economic opportunities to women is a critical part of addressing GBV.

In hearing these women explain all they did, I could not help but be impressed; in walking around West Point with them after our discussion, I became truly amazed. These women were greeted by everyone they passed with friendship and respect, from the youngest girl to the old men sitting by the makeshift soccer pit.

It was evident that their status came not only from their ability to organize collectively, but from the fact that they are part of the community. These women were not outsiders or even Monrovia elite, they were born and raised in West Point and thus acutely understood the problems and needs of their community. If the government or international organizations were not going to assist the raped and beaten women of West Point, then they would — at their own expense no less.

In my brief trips to Liberia, I have discovered that groups like the West Point Women exist throughout the country. Strong women have organized in communities across Liberia — both urban and rural — to advocate for those being forgotten and left out of official legal and judicial channels.

The fact that these groups often do not receive support from government or the many international organizations that are in Liberia to address post-conflict challenges is puzzling. But even more troubling is that the experiences of these groups working in the day-to-day reality of gender violence are not informing the policies and programs being implemented to curb GBV.

The “Access to Justice” Workshop supported by the IDN included representatives from many local organizations, including the West Point Women. Their experiences of GBV and organizing within their community to address GBV are critical in shaping effective programs and policies in this area.

In allowing the experiences of someone like Nelly Cooper to guide and frame research, we can begin to do sustainable work that has an immediate and effective impact on gender-based violence and the rule of law.