Last year we visited several counties in the West African country of Liberia with our partner organization WIPNET (Women in peace Building Network). We had wished to approach women that work with WIPNET outside the Liberian capital Monrovia, in order to speak about gender based violence during the country’s devastating civil war. We also wanted to record the recommendations these grass-roots activists had for future peace mediation in West Africa. Starting with the first meeting, the same pattern repeated itself. Many women told us they could forgive the perpetrators but they would not forget. There were questions and there were answers. But the conversation really started when we enquired about what had changed, and how violence manifests itself today.
Nothing had changed and everything had changed. Some women could speak out and some were in leading positions in the society and in the communities. There was a feeling that life could change and that the economic obstacles could be overcome. But at the same time violence against women had increased, and a pressure to return to the pre-war ways of life was considerable. Within the household, arms were used by intimate partners and friends to commit violence. Especially attacks against young girls were common, in order to “show them their place”. Fifteen years after the Liberian Peace Agreements, the violent and authoritarian figure of an ex-combatant seemed to be idealized among youth, both male and female. The older women we met explained that when the demobilised but not completely disarmed combatants had returned to their homes and families, war behaviours had moved to the private sphere. With this explanation it was easy to see that the keeping up and reproducing of hyper-masculine patterns and hierarchies that had played an important role during the war, had continued strong in the immediate post-conflict when other social structures were weak. The focus groups in Liberia feared that children and youth who have seen violence in their communities during conflict were more likely to repeat aggressive behaviour themselves.
Research on post conflict situations supports this fear. In many countries that have suffered a violent conflict, rates of interpersonal violence remain high after the cessation of hostilities. Violence against women, according to some studies, is even higher after the war than during it. Echoing these findings, the International Refugee Council states that the primary threat to women in West Africa is not a man with a gun or a stranger. It is someone from their own community. According to a study by Small Arms Survey, despite the persistent stigma that would appear to surround the group of ex-combatants in Liberian society, their role in sexual violence in post-conflict may be overstated. A disturbingly high number of survivors are very young girls who have been raped by family members, friends, or neighbours. In a country recovering from conflict, encountering the right classification for a perpetrator can be difficult, as the roles of ex-combatant, family member, community member or friend can all merge. This contributes to the silence around the violence. The deepest scars of domestic violence however, are often the least visible because they manifest themselves as shame, humiliation and isolation. This isolation inhibits women’s participation in social, economic or community activities. It inhibits young girls to become full members in their societies.
In this sense, disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration are at the heart of gender-sensitive peace agreements. Not everything can be resolved in a peace process, but with today’s knowledge on post-conflict violence, mediation should always address the prevention of future domestic and inter-community violence. Both the international community and the actors in conflict countries are becoming more and more aware of this fact. Even more people should be made aware of the fact that violence against women should not increase after conflict, it must be stopped altogether.