Mon, Nov 01, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Women and children included in disarmament plan

LIBERIA Wary of repeating mistakes from other disarmament efforts such as in Sierra Leone, the UN is providing facilities and targeted aid to women


Mindful of the lessons learned in other disarmament programs conducted in Africa, the UN has redoubled efforts to include women and children in its campaign in Liberia, even if they do not meet the weapons criteria demanded of ex-combatants.

Commanders from the three warring factions in the second of Liberia's civil wars since 1989 will have sent some 25,000 women and children to the eight sites around the west African state from the time the disarmament effort resumed in April until yesterday's deadline -- one in five of all former fighters.

"There was pressure to not repeat some of the mistakes made in Sierra Leone, where women and girls were really excluded from the program," said Dyan Mazurana, co-author with Susan McKay of a study from June last year of the treatment of girls in fighting forces from three African countries including Liberia's western neighbor.

"From how the camps were set up to how they involved development partners, the UN needed to make a lot of changes in order to better serve the needs of girls and women."

Liberia first tackled the logistic problem of including women and children in the disarmament process by building camps that provided distinct quarters for women and girls, including separate showers and latrines, medical examination rooms and common areas.

At the camp in Buchanan, where an equal number of women from the armies of Charles Taylor and the rebel forces who opposed them showed up to disarm, one needed to pass through a guarded post to access the women's side.

"We try to be like sisters to these girls, even though it can be hard because we know why they are here," said Florence, a camp aide in the eastern port city.

"We try to keep them safe so that at least they can take rest."

But while women were checked and treated for sexually transmitted illnesses, there was little in the way of follow up care. Screening for HIV/AIDS was excluded from medical examinations for both men and women. Women with newborns were not offered vaccinations, though a pan-African effort to eradicate polio did include Liberia's female combatants.

Short stays in the disarmament processing camps and then immediate transfer to an interim care center was the objective of the program for children under age 18, coordinated by the UN children's agency UNICEF and development partners such as Save the Children.

One of the camps in Monrovia had space for more than 400 girls, some of them with children, to stay for the weeks or months it could take for aid workers to find what remained of their families.

Princess, a pretty 16-year-old with kohl-rimmed eyes and a red bandanna pulled low over huge silver earrings, was forced into service to the Government of Liberia troops.

If she was not in combat, she was cooking for them. Sometimes she carried water. And most of the time she served as unwilling bedmate to her "boyfriend," to whom she bore a son.

"I want to go to school and learn how to design clothes," she said. "I think I would be good at that."

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