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Counseling professor seeks to heal a country



Tina Richardson

The gun smoke from Liberia’s brutal civil war may have cleared with a cease fire in 2003, but the 14 years of combat have left deep scars in the West African nation.

To help the Liberian people heal, Tina Richardson, associate professor of counseling psychology, along with Joana Foster, is forging a partnership between Lehigh University’s counseling psychology program and the University of Liberia.

“There must be training and counseling not just for the people who were hurt but also for the perpetrators,” said Joana Foster, Liberia’s former senior advisor on gender issues for the United Nations, in her lecture, titled “From the Ashes of War” on Monday, April 7.

An estimated 250,000 people have died and one million people, or one third of Liberia’s population, were displaced in a series of wars where rape was an intimidation tactic and children were forced to become soldiers. Today, Liberia’s society is trying to re-integrate child soldiers, refugees and war victims.

“There is a crucial need for resolution and a need for a program such as Lehigh is trying to establish,” said Foster, now a visiting scholar at Cornell University’s law school.

Richardson and other Lehigh counseling psychology professors hope to help establish a psychology department in the one of West Africa’s oldest universities.

The seeds of the partnership were planted when Richardson met with Foster during a visit to Liberia in December.

“We started to talk about forming a partnership with the teachers in Liberia in hopes of developing a national curriculum with an emphasis on recovery and restoration,” says Richardson. At the end of April, the president of the University of Liberia, Al-Hassan Conteh, Ph.D., will visit Lehigh to discuss the partnership.

From victims to peacemakers

After the shooting ended, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in 2003 in hopes of maintaining the peace and improving human rights, including rights for women. Until this year, Foster led the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) efforts to promote equal rights for women.

“The impact of the war on women, in some ways, really isn’t all that different than the impact on men. Both groups suffered trauma: Both groups were displaced, injured, killed and had difficulties making a living during the war,” said Foster. “However, we find that women and girls, in addition to the abuses that were handed out to everyone, suffered sexual abuses.”

Women were abducted, forced to fight, cook and carry supplies for the troops, and many became slave wives, Foster said. Even before the war, women were considered second-class citizens, forced to marry young, frequently beaten, often subject to mutilation and rarely educated.

The women did not remain victims. Foster explained that women banded together, forming groups that campaigned for peace and pled with combatants, urging them to discard their weapons.

“They understood that as long as the guys had their guns, the war would not stop. They kept the pressure up and kept the peace up,” said Foster.

Since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inauguration, life for women improved, Foster said. Under the leadership of President Sirleaf and with the support of Foster and the U.N., more women have been granted greater access to education, registered to vote, been elected to political offices and received better healthcare.

Yet, there is still a long way to go.

A report released this month from the UNMIL described ongoing violence against women, such as rape and forced marriages. Few Liberians have limited access to education and wide-spread corruption undermines the government and judicial systems.

Even in 2006, only 11 percent of the female population could read, said Foster.

Some of Liberia’s struggles today stem from its shared history with America, says Richardson. While introducing Foster, Richardson reminded that descendents of freed slaves from the America’s dominated the indigenous people until a military coup in 1980.

“Please be keenly aware that the connection between Liberia and the United States is very strong and some of the dynamics between the three civil wars in Liberia are very closely tied to the fact the indigenous Africans were colonized in Liberia,” she said.

Foster’s lecture was sponsored by the College of Education and the Global Union.

--Becky Straw


Posted on Friday, April 18, 2008

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