The United Nations (UN) has recently sent me to Liberia to provide aid to women, men and children in surrounding internally displaced person (IDP) camps. Some critical questions to be asked include: What steps are to be taken by the UN so as to ensure safety, health and well being in the surrounding IDP camps? What information must be recorded and why? What services must be delivered, and how?
The first step in any kind of outreach is to acknowledge that I am an outsider coming into a conflict zone which I know very little to nothing about in comparison to those who have experienced life in the Republic of Liberia. All too often, well meaning aid efforts from the global north have historically misinterpreted and imposed ethnocentricites onto communities of the global south. Hence my first course of action would be transnational in nature, to listen to what women, men and children had to say about their living conditions since the 2003 resignation of Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor and the 2005 democratic election of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
President Sirleaf has been dealt a complex history of Liberian Civil Wars: the first from 1989 to 1996 and the more recent having lasted from 1999 to 2003. These conflicts pose serious challenges to the current reconstruction and rebuilding of Liberian politics, economy and social landscape – namely the severely sensative reintroduction of former combatants into society.
“For post-conflict societies, the challenges of reintegrating…war-affected youth are likely to far outlast and outsize the formal demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants… In Liberia, where the bulk of the population is young, poor, and underemployed, many rural youth continue to make their living through unlawful activities, including unlicensed mining, rubber tapping, or logging…ex-combatants, and some remain in loose armed group structures, doing the bidding of their wartime commanders..” -ipa (innovations for poverty action)
After I attempt to initiate an open dialogue with internally displaced persons living in conflict zone camps, it is necessary to examine those social relations, which are particular to Liberian culture, through a gender lens, as Professors Daniels and Richardson often say. This might mean respecting certain restrictions pertaining to space and gender when constructing UN IDP camps; can men and women occupy the same space at the same time? This deeply impacts the lived experiences of girls and self-identified women, in terms of proximity to safe or potentially unsafe toilet facilities, coming out from under IDP camp tents for fresh air, etc.
These considerations are vital to the physical construction of safety and security among those who are most vulnerable to sexual violence. Women and girls disproportionately face the atrocities of rape as a weapon of war in conflict zones such as Liberia. Hence access to medical facilities and free-of-charge mental health care are imperative to addressing the physical and psychological consequences of war on women, among which include but are not limited to:
- unwanted pregnancies
- unwanted abortions
- genital trauma
- post traumatic stress disorder:
“an anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a traumatic event characterized by ‘actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others.” -Evan D. Kanter, The Impact Of War On Mental Health
- spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS
Humanitarian aid workers ought to be well versed in these kind of ramifications of war as well as in the languages spoken in Liberia, so as to most effectively assist IDP communities in both physical and psychological healing. Another step in the reconstruction of Liberian conflict zones will be to provide gender-specific aid to girls and women as well as to boys and men, respecting those societal gender-based divisions which may or may not allow women to interact with men who are not their husbands, even if those men are UN humanitarian aid workers, doctors, psychologists or medical assistants.
“Gender training is necessary for peacekeeping troops and humanitarian aid workers to prevent reoccurence of rape and exploitation of women and girls by men who have power and money. Greater efforts must be made to ensure that humanitarian aid reaches women and is not first derived to men.” -Mary-Wynne Ashford, The Impact Of War On Women
Ashford urges UN aid workers, ‘like myself,’ to ensure the safety of women and children in refugee camps by providing, “adequate cooking fuel,” so as to avoid the, “necessity for women,” to unsafely leave IDP camps, “in search of firewood,” and by providing, “efficient cooking stoves to conserve fuel” (6). Particular considerations such as these are to be integrated into UN relief efforts, so that actual relief might take root in conflict zones such as Liberia.
My main goal, as a UN humanitarian aid worker, is to help local communities negotiate reconstruction on their own, peace-keeping terms. By listening to women, men and children’s needs, more direct solutions can be of service.