The Galvanizing Role of Liberian Women in National Reconstruction

Speech Delivered at Christian Health Association of Liberia (CHAL) 
Tubman Boulevard, Monrovia, Liberia
September 9, 2006
Syrulwa Somah, PhD
Executive of Director, Liberian History, Education and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), Greensboro, NC
Associate Professor, Environmental and Occupational Safety & Health
NC A&T State University, Greensboro, NC

Madam Etweda A. Cooper, Chairperson, the Liberian Woman Initiative (LWI), Officers, and Members of the Liberian Women Initiative; Liberian government officials, educators, prelates, and foreign dignitaries present; Distinguished Daughters of Liberia; Ladies and Gentlemen; Friends:

I am pleased and greatly honored by your invitation to be here today.  As a health and safety professional, husband, and the child of a woman, I have a deep appreciation and respect for women-the bearer of kings, queens, presidents, and sport legends, among others. My friends, there is no area of human endeavor upon which the patent of woman has not been made, and made well. And Christians will tell you that before the “Word” or “Spirit” was made flesh and went forth to live in the person of Jesus Christ, for thousands of years - from the Old Stone Age to the closing of the last goddess temples around AD 500, women have been at the forefront of all great civilizations. So it is an immense opportunity for me to speak to this very large gathering of women, the apples of angels and vessels of mercy, whom many men will never have the glory to address.

But my opportunity to address you is for a worthy cause. I consider my appearance before you here today as a worthy cause because the lifeline of you and I is not only at stake, but also the very survival of our generation and the next generations of Liberians, along with the general health of our nation, is in serious trouble due to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and malaria than at any period of our history. Malaria and HIV/AIDS seriously threaten our demise as individuals and our national security as a nation and people if we remain complacent and not take immediate actions to combat these deadly diseases. Never before in the history of humanity have humankind ever seen the presence of two deadly diseases complementing each other so well to decimate a complete nation as if they (these deadly diseases) were preprogrammed for maximum effect on humans. I think we all know that the human toll and suffering due to HIV/AIDS is already enormous, so we should combat malaria as quickly as we can to breakup this deadly combination of malaria and HIV/AIDS from wrecking havoc on our people.

AIDS is now one of the leading causes of death in Liberia and other countries in sub-Sahara Africa. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly two-thirds of the world's HIV-positive people are sub-Sahara Africans, compared to the fact that sub-Sahara Africa makes up only 10 percent of the world's population. Sadly, an estimated 20 million Africans have died from AIDS since the disease was diagnosed on the Continent on June 5, 1981, but the year 2005 along saw the deaths of two million African adults and children, mostly in sub-Sahara Africa. By 2002, the number of HIV-positive people in South Africa alone rose to over six million, with most of these people having little or no access to the lifesaving medical cocktail used in the most advanced countries for treating people with HIV/AIDS. As a result, an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 South Africans are becoming infected with HIV virus daily.

It is even worrisome yet that by the year 2010, an estimated 40 million children in developing nations, including Liberia, will lose one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. And even worrisome more, life expectancy (47 years) now stands at one of its lowest in our nation’s history. Hence, in a nation like Liberia, this glooming projection means that one in every 4 to 6 Liberian children would lose a parent to HIV/AIDS in 2010. This also means that AIDS-induced illnesses will have immense bearing on our nation and people, including productivity, national security, agriculture, demographic, education, healthcare, and economics. Hence, no one captures the magnitude of the impact of HIV/AIDS on Liberian society than a doctor quoted in a report (Liberia: Extremely Vulnerable to HIV) by Sarah Martin of Refugees International that “AIDS is going to be a big problem in Liberia [because] We are seeing full blown cases of AIDS but there is nothing we can do for them.”  Accordingly, the men and women of Liberia must take these words as a harbinger of what awaits all of us in Liberia in the near future if we do not act now.
Ladies and gentlemen, HIV/AIDS has become a menace in Liberia alongside malaria in the last 14 years, with the HIV/AIDS cases rising from a mere two percent in the 1990s to 5.9 percent in 2003. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported in 2001 that 1.8 million Liberians (or 2.8 percent of the adult population of Liberia) between the ages 15-64 were vectors of the disease, which statistically meant that 1 out of 62 Liberians were infected with HIV/AIDS. In addition, between 2003 and 2005 when the transitional government in Liberia was able to track and test for the HIV/AIDS virus, the rate of HIV/AIDS cases in Liberia claimed to eight percent based on the test results of 100,000 Liberians, which meant a 20-percent increase in the rate of HIV/AIDS in Liberia, according to a Liberian Health Ministry report. But the most disturbing aspect of the report is that the age group (15-19) most affected by the HIV/AIDS comprises the future leaders of Liberia. Adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 19 are the socio-economic pillars of any nation, so the infestation of this very population of young people by HIV/AIDS would pose a grave national security threat to Liberia because our nation would rely on these young people for future development in sports, agriculture, medicine, business and industry, reproductive services, military service, and overall national production.

In deed, equally alarming is that the infestation rate of HIV/AIDS among the local population in Liberia jumped from eight percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2005, mainly affecting women and girls who are the seed-bearers or reproductive lifelines of our nation. This figure, when put in proper perspective, means that unless we in Liberia take concrete national action through public-private collaboration to crush the HIV/AIDS menace, we may face a serious national socio-economic and health crises in the future. In fact, CIA reported in 2004 that out of the more than 300,000 Liberians who were infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, an estimated 5,000 who were carriers of full brown AIDS disease died that year. In other words, if we were to presume for a moment based on the 2004 AIDS deaths that an average of 5,000 Liberians die each year from AIDS-related diseases, then AIDS accounted for the deaths of 70, 000 Liberians within the course of the 14-year civil war in Liberia from 1989 to 2003.
Hence, if we were to compare the monetary costs associated with the treatment of HIV/AIDS in other African countries like the Congo Republic and Kenya, then the experts’ opinion would be that Liberia will need more than $100 million per year to combat the HIV/AIDS disease. This is, in deed, a very serious cause for concern because if we take for granted that Liberia just passed a $130 million annual budget, and allocation for public healthcare services is only 5.62 percent or US $7.2 million, how will she raise $100 million per year to combat HIV/AIDS alone? The chances are very slimmed!

Regarding malaria, an estimated 4,500 cases were reported for the latter part of the 1980s up to 2005. In 2006, when the Liberian national malaria program had the chance to look at malaria cases in Liberia, the figure is too scaring. The rate of malaria death in Liberia is 20,000 individuals per year, with an annual economic overlay of $40 million in treatment costs. Calculating the death rate for malaria as we did with the HIV/AIDS figures, or by extrapolating the period of the 14-year civil war during which an estimated 20,000 individuals died from malaria and multiplying that number by 14 years, we are likely to get about 280,000 deaths and $5.6 million expended on malaria treatment alone during civil war period, which is a very high healthcare burden for a war-ravaged country.

In deed, on average, both diseases took 350,000 lives and $19.6 million dollars during the last 14 years. Sadly, we now have both diseases to take on which all indications show will accelerate death in Liberia because anyone with HIV/AIDS who already has weakened immune system gets malaria that also targets destroying the red blood cells and elevating the body temperature will have little chance to live. This is the gorilla that is in the closet that a lot of people do not know. This is one of the reasons Liberians must act now or we are going to loose our nation not only to foreigners who are engaging in illicit mining activities, taking over its territory, women, and jobs, but also we will kill ourselves for complacency and our inability to act on time. I believe that a nation of merely 3.2 million people should not let the combined forces of malaria and HIV/AIDS to reduce it to rubbles.  

We need to be smart here and come out in support of immediate malaria eradication with the cheapest treatment so that we cannot have a big mess in our hands tomorrow. I therefore respect other Liberians who hold the view that HIV/AIDS kills more Liberians than malaria, though I believe that malaria kills more people simply because no death certificate had ever listed HIV/AIDS as the cause of death but other diseases and opportunistic infections.  In fact, about 26 "AIDS-defining illnesses" have not only been listed which formed a part of the AIDS “syndrome” (collection of illnesses), but AIDS is described by the medical community as the most advanced stage of HIV disease or that HIV is the main cause that oxygenates the lifeline of AIDS. But that is another discussion for another day. The main concern here is that malaria is currently unknown in the developed world because it was defeated in the developed world more than 40 years ago, so malaria shouldn’t be killing our people because there is a tested cure for malaria. We in Liberia are wasting valuable limited resources on poor malaria treatment and control measures by allowing other people to take advantage of us and make money at the expense of our lives. This is genocide, apartheid, holocaust, slavery, and a violation of human rights, which must be put stop to. If certain forms of malaria treatment and control options were safe and effective enough to eradicate malaria in developed countries, the same safe and effective treatment options should be good for use in Liberia.
Now, I know that some of you have heard that the Liberian History, Education, and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE) is spearheading a campaign or making the case that our people have suffered too much of malaria when malaria is a curable infectious disease. This is true. We in LIHEDE want to impress on you not to let anyone fool you that we cannot get rid of malaria in Liberia. The technology to kill mosquitoes, the malaria parasite, and disrupt their life cycle is available. Many countries, including the United States, Poland, Romania, Italy, Caribbean, Great Britain, Israel, South Africa, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea, and others have used this technology effectively to get rid of malaria, and Liberia can use the same technology to get rid of its mosquito population, which is the main source of malaria in Liberia.
As I speak, there is an ongoing initiative by U.S. President George Bush’s Administration called the President Malaria Initiative (PMI), which has donated several billion dollars to poor countries to use indoor and outdoor residual spraying to kill mosquitoes as it was done in 1950s and 1960s by developed countries to end their malaria problem.  As I speak, African nations like Angola, Namibia, Kenyan, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, and Tanzania, our blood-brothers and sisters, are now beginning to benefit from this program with resounding results.  Unlike us, these nations have realized that choloquine and bednets treatment do not work against malaria. Unlike us, these nations have realized that manufacturers of non-effective drugs, and those who are promoting bandit solutions like bednets for malaria control, are only doing so at the expense of our people when we know very well that these bed nets sellers and fake malaria drugs sellers would not allow their children to spend a night in any malaria regions in Africa. Therefore, LIHEDE, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, is organizing a national health conference in Monrovia from December 14 to 19, 2006 to discuss how we can work together as Liberians and friends of Liberia to combat malaria and other common diseases in Liberia, so you and I can be healthy as we go about rebuilding our lives and our country. This is why I said that my appearing before you today is for a worthy cause. Now, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, please permit me at this point to draw your attention to the topic of my speech, “The Galvanizing Role of Liberian Women in National Reconstruction.” 

My brothers and sisters, we are living in a difficult time in Liberia these days. The 14-year civil war destroyed everything we had, including the pride we once had for ourselves, and now comes the reign of terror of Esakaba, so we need to work very hard to rebuild our lives and our country. But we cannot build up ourselves and our country if we are sick constantly from common diseases like malaria. I think you know that if you are sick with malaria you won’t have the strength to do anything. This is why my organization, the Liberian History, Education, and Development, Inc. (LIHEDE), is trying to do something about getting rid of malaria in Liberia. And this is why I am going back and forth between the US and Liberia to find a lasting solution to the malaria problem and begin Liberian Studies (BA in Liberian Studies, BA in Liberian Studies (Peace Education Concentration); BA in Liberian Studies (Military Studies Concentration); MA in The Master of Arts in Gender and Peace Building/Education; MA in Liberian Studies/Environmental Studies; and PhD in Liberian Studies) at Liberian Higher Institutions of Learning.

This trip is my 5th in less than three years trying to help our nation. I want to let you know out front that 99.9% of the funds donated to this cause are our personal funds. In other words, as the leader of LIHEDE, it is my belief that I can be an employee of our nation without necessarily being on the payroll of a government or NGO, or being heavily influenced by a president or minister. I believe the highest form of patriotism demands that no citizen of Liberia should have to be employed by the Liberian government in order to do what is expected of him or her in helping to develop Liberia or defeat malaria in Liberia. I certainly do not believe that I have to be a “president”, “minister”, “director”, or an official of government in order to do that which is required of me.

I have always maintained that some of us who are privileged to have gotten some education, the God of Liberia will one day ask us this question: “Yes, my son or daughter, you were a journalist, a doctor, an engineer, a professor, a politician, and a writer, but what did you do with your education to help Liberia?” For me, I just want to do God’s will and assist Liberia in whatever limited way I can, so when the time of accountability before God comes, I can point to something on that day of judgment. Are you also ready to point to something too? I know you are ready because the Liberian Women Initiative has been a positive force of unity and hope in Liberia during our most trying times, and each of you can point to that before God. Of course, those of our brothers and sisters who used their education to bring suffering on their own people and helped to destroy our country will also have to account before God for their deeds, but don’t let us ever cease in using our education for the good of our people and our country.

Every day, as daughters of Liberia, and all of us as citizens of this land, we are given opportunities to change our nation for the best with purposeful acts of love, nationalism, patriotism, and industrialism.  But in other for us to be successful, we must support each other’s effort. If the load that one of us is carrying is too heavy and you do not have any load on your head or shoulder, then it is your responsibility to help out until we reach where we want the load to be delivered. This is what nations like the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore, Belgium, Israel, Japan, Germany, China, and countless other developed countries have done many times that they today have many paved roads, malls, railroads, airports, hotels, parks, industries, universities, and hospitals, not to mention that they have also managed to defeat  malaria because they put their hands together and the load became lighter. 

You, my dear daughters of Liberia, have shown that you can hold together and work with your male counterparts in building a peaceful, productive, and prosperous Liberia. You were at the very heart of Liberia’s Declaration of Independence when you designed its flag. And the support roles of Liberian women in bringing peace to Liberia up to the recent Liberian national elections cannot be underestimated. This why I have come to you because you know what I am talking about. I am tried begging other people’s daughters for help for Liberia, when the daughters of Liberia can deliver.  I know what you can do when you put on the battle armor for peace, faith, development, reconciliation, and stability in Liberia. As Liberian women, you have everything to be proud for you various roles in promoting peace and national reconstruction in Liberia. The work of your hand is vivid in the Liberian Women's Initiative.  In 1994, Liberian women became so frustrated with peace negations and general stability in Liberia that they organized the LWI to directly advocate grassroots perspectives to faction leaders at regional peace negotiations. LWI targeted all parties involved in the negotiations, and by 1996, LWI began a disarmament project to assist in the collection of small arms and light weapons as part of the peace process, and to ensure that women were working on disarmament issues. By 1999, an estimated 20,000 small arms and over three million rounds of ammunition were destroyed as a result of the LWI’s efforts.

I can say to you proudly that the work of your hand is vivid when in 2000, the Mano River Union Women Peace Network (MARWOPNET) was founded. The leaders of this organization, including veteran activist Mary Brownell, recognized that there would be no peace in Liberia without peace in Sierra Leone and Guinea. MARWOPNET put forth an initiative to mediate the conflict and disagreement between Guinea and Liberia and dispatched a delegation to appeal to the feuding heads of states in the region. MARWOPNET had issued statements urging ECOWAS and the UN to intervene in the Liberian crisis. MARWOPNET's efforts were commended by the Security Council in Resolution 1408 on the situation in Liberia.

Dear mothers and sisters of Liberia, the work of you hand is vivid when in March 2003, the Women in Peace-Building Network (WIPNET) began a peace campaign with a sit-in, first gathering at an airfield in Monrovia, and later at  various government offices, including the presidential office , demanding a peaceful resolution to the conflict. After the initial demonstrations, the women extended their peace efforts across Liberia through peace workshops around Liberia and the dissemination of leaflets with simple peace messages. Hence, in December 2003, WIPNET was called upon by UNMIL to assist with the ongoing Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program at the time. WIPNET was asked to come in and calm the combatants, provide them with essential services and safeguard the underage combatants, which the women did to save the day.  Give yourselves a big hand clap for being a “rights-to- life”, human rights activists, and a job well done!

Again, the work of your hand is vivid when in 1990s the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL) conducted research on the effects of the 1989-1996 civil wars on Liberian women, which they presented in their 1998 co-authored publication, “What Women Do in Wartime.” In 2000, the Government of Liberia granted AFELL the right to prosecute rape cases, as formerly only the state had the right to prosecute criminal cases emanating from rape.  AFELL worked with UNICEF to establish the first ever child-centered juvenile justice system in Liberia.

My dear mothers of Liberia, no one can deny that the work of your hand has been vivid throughout Liberian history and political development, although many brave and farsighted Liberian women warriors were rarely heard of because they were relegated to the dusty pages of Liberian history books. The legendary Oldman Barker, through whose vision and tenacity the Barker Market in Monrovia was established to provide Liberian women an organized venue to sell their goods, is just one such lady of great contribution to national reconstruction in Liberia. Then as lately as September 3, 1996 to August 27, 1997, Ruth Perry out did her male counterparts as head of the rotating Council of State of Liberia to help the government implement a gender program that headed activities such as the 11 March 2003 celebration of International Women's Day where women urged the government and rebel forces to arrive at a peaceful resolution to the devastating fighting. The Madam Ruth Sando Perry’s transitional administration from 1996-1997, presided over a day's consultative meeting of Liberian women pressure groups in Accra to chart a course for peace in their war-wrecked country on August 18, 2003.

Liberian women succeeded in convincing the government to create a first ever Ministry of Gender and Development to advocate women and children issues. And finally, Liberian women succeeded in placing in the Executive Mansion for the first time in 158 years of our national existence, the first woman president in person of Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.  Now do you understand why I say the work of your hand is vivid? I bet you do!

You are and have been good daughters with fine minds, honest heart, and motherly souls for our nation. This is why I can look straight in your eyes and appeal to you as a friend, brother, and fellow Liberian and African and say to you we have a common enemy, an enemy that is worst than the past 14-years civil war. This is why I can look straight in your eyes as a friend, brother, and fellow Liberian and African and say to you that we have an enemy (malaria) that has no respect for us, for our babies, our happiness, our hard earned salary, and our longevity. This enemy of our life has been picking fight with us since we knew ourselves as a nation and people. It is insane that we continue to have this enemy hanging around us, isn’t?
As you know, when someone picks fight with you, you do not let the person prepare for the fight. You also do not let the person who picks the fight to beat you. And this is why before you go to face the person who picks fight with you, it is always wise to take a big sister or big brother along just in case you need help to defeat your enemy. Besides big brother and big sister, you also get pepper water ready too just in case you might need it. And you don’t also forget to tie your lappa very tight and wear short pant under your skirt in case. (And I won’t go there because you know what I mean!).

My dear mothers and sisters, I come to you to ask you to join LIHEDE and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in this fight against malaria in Liberia. You and I didn’t do anything to malaria when it decided to attack us and keep us away from our families by making us sick or killing us. I think enough is enough, so we must act.  You women of Liberia acted fast to bring peace in our nation, and you can act fast against to stop malaria in Liberia.  This role, you, the daughters of Liberia, must take. Let your songs show your pains and worry; let your wearings show your inherent hate of malaria; let your letter written to kings and queens of the world and authorities of powerful government, organizations compel them  to see your resolve, your tenacity to defeat malaria.

We must tell the world that we are sick and tired of seeing our children die daily from a disease that is readily preventable. Tell your friends, pastors, bishops, senators, superintendents, and county representatives that malaria kills four children every 30 seconds in Sub-Saharan Africa. Tell them you cannot, and will not tolerate malaria killing your children, brothers, sisters, fathers, uncles, mothers, aunts, and friends any longer. Tell them that malaria prevention is not the “people’s thing” but everybody’s business.
I come to you so that we can prevail on our government to declare a state of emergency on malaria treatment, control, and eradication in Liberia.  Let your public but orderly demonstration show that you will not tolerate any delay or cast your vote for any leaders or lawmakers who have sympathy for these flies that virtually imprison the future of an entire seeds of your wombs.  You must, as mothers change this pattern so that your babies can have life and have it abundantly, which is a fundamental human right.

From now on carry placard, and wear T-shirt to tell the world that we do not want to live in a Liberia where a curable disease like malaria undermine our growth and development because of cheap drugs from   those who hold back on the actual malaria eradication treatment to make money at the expense of your babies’ lives. From now on to December 14-19 and beyond, let your voice, your action, and your deeds show that no more politics, gamesmanship, commercial interests, and other sinister motives would halt the drive toward malaria control, prevention, and eradication in Liberia.

Malaria is robbing the lifeline and birthright of our land, liberty, and peace , so let us together  raise our hands and pledge ourselves to strive together, sparing neither strength nor courage, until the fight for malaria eradication is won.

Again, thanks for listening my dear mothers and sisters, and proud daughters of Liberia. The works of your hands have been vivid in the past, and I am certain the works of your hands will remain vivid in the present and in the future. Make 2006 the year the Daughters of Liberia declare war on malaria.  You should also continue your fight for equality and fair play in society, and ensure that the national reconstruction efforts you have started with your peace initiatives by remaining bold and steadfast in your objectives. God bless Liberian women and God bless Liberia!

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