After leaving her husband behind to protect their home, Philomene Eholi* recently fled the Ivory Coast with her mother and 11 children.
Eholi is one of thousands of Ivorian refugees who have crossed into Liberia and, according to the Women's Refugee Commission, are receiving scant attention from the international community. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts that as many as a quarter of a million may soon be in Eholi's position.
The ongoing Ivorian crisis began after Laurent Gbagbo, the Ivory Coast's incumbent president since 2000, claimed he had won the 2010 Ivorian election, the first in ten years. Opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara was internationally-recognised as the real winner, but Gbagbo has refused to budge. The fight for the presidency has descended into another tragic civil war in the fragile West African region.
The area is no stranger to wars and their attendant refugee crises with recent fighting in neighbouring Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Refugees fleeing the Ivory Coast are mostly women and children and many, like Eholi, are struggling to feed their families and at the mercy of local Liberians living near the border.
Still in her twenties, she has eleven children. With her country on the brink of civil war, she fled to what she thought would be safety in Liberia.
When a team from Liberia's Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) recently visited Buutuo (the historic area where Charles Taylor launched his rebellion in 1989), Eholi had just given birth to a baby girl, whom she named Annie. Amongst her 11 children she has a set of twins who played with their grandmother while Eholi spoke to the media.
Through a translator, she said she is surviving in the Liberian border town only by the grace of God. Besides the UN donated ration, she has had to take up cassava farming to feed her hungry family. Her plight aroused the sympathy of the UNFPA resident representative, Esperance Fundira, who was in Buutuo to donate medical items to refugees.
Eholi's predicament is common in crisis situations, when women often become the breadwinners for their families.
The recently-ended civil war and fighting in Liberia meant many women here suffered the same problems in Ivory Coast and other neighbouring countries: this time the tables have turned.
The Women's Refugee Commission has called on international organisations, including the UN, to expedite the processing of donor money and services for Ivorian refugees, noting that "many of those displaced are women and children . . . and there has been little, or no, consideration of their specific needs."
Last year was the ten year anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security. The Resolution was the first UN document to explicitly address the struggles faced by women in conflict and post-conflict situations. It also mandated women's involvement in every stage of the peace process.
However, the UN has been criticised for not taking stronger action in Ivory Coast, as it has recently done in Libya. This includes taking steps to protect refugees in neighbouring countries like Liberia.
In her book Redemption Road, Elma Shaw narrates the story of Bendu Lewis, an Americo-Liberian girl who, along with her grandmother, was caught in one of the bloody battles during the Liberian civil war. Bendu was forced into marrying a general named Cobra. She was raped and later forcibly conscripted into a unit. She gave birth to a baby girl who she eventually had to leave behind after she escaped and was reunited with her family. Stories like this are common in the region, epitomising the plight women bear in times of crisis and one of the reasons why women like Eholi are fleeing to Liberia.
If the UN and international agencies don't take measures to protect and feed these women and children soon, a similar or worse fate may soon befall Eholi and the thousands of other women caught in the middle of this senseless war.
*Not her real name.
Gboko John Stewart is a Liberian journalist. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.
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