Turning a Blind-Eye to the Exploitation of Women? Why it Hurts Us All

By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 22, 2007


I write this article in response to what I have come to call the culture of impunity in Liberia. By impunity, I mean at no time has President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf taken real steps rather than symbolic ones to demonstrate strong stance against the exploitation of girls and women by her close male associates, be it allegations of sexual act with a minor against Representative Kett Murray or revelations of orgy-type sex acts between State and Presidential Affairs Minister, Willis Knuckles.

I also include responses to Mr. Theodore T. Hodges’ article entitled: Presidential Minister Willis Knuckles: Villain or Victim, in which he generally couches Mr. Knuckles as a victim essentially because his private indiscretions were brought into the open by people who allegedly tried to blackmail him. Mr. Hodge makes his case without acknowledging the basic issue of disproportionate power, prestige, and privilege adorned on Mr. Knuckles relative to the women in the photograph. More importantly, I focus this paper on the three related reasons why the tendency manifested here (letting a well-connected political giant get away with an even that could possibly cause a socially disconnected public servant their job), has negative implications for rebuilding our society.

I am not going to focus this article on Willis Knuckles’ action, because much have been said about this issue. Moreover, Mr. Knuckles has squandered the confidence that the President bestowed upon him, although commentators like Hodge have come to construe him as a probable “honorable man.” From the vantage point of restorative justice, and recognizing that all of our “feet are made of clay, and had it not been for the grace of God,” one of us could be the one in this very difficult position, the least the President can do would be to suspend Mr. Knuckles for an indefinite time period, ask him to seek professional help (counseling and/or spiritual self-reflection). When the President and Mr. Knuckles agree that the terms of the restoration are satisfied, he can either venture on to public service or private practice. Perhaps this intervention would also halt any desire on the part of Mr. Snowe and his supporters to continue to spread a hysteria that all their enemies are going to be targets of their vendetta. It is a moral lapse, and President Sirleaf cannot send the message that she condones this kind of practice.

But then again, the President’s actions also indicate that she is standing with Mr. Knuckles despite the heinous nature of his offense. Unlike his predecessor, Morris Dukuly, who saw it fit to claim culpability and resign during the “fire gate,” which engulfed the Executive Mansion, Knuckles is resting on his long-standing relationship with the President and arrogantly blaming everyone, while taking nominal responsibility for his actions.

There are three basic reasons why those in government and the entire nation must respond to the exploitation of girls and women with significant dismay and seek to prevent it from reoccurring, especially when it involves a perpetrator that has lopsided power than most in society including his victims. First, it corrects past and present wrongs: political, social, economic and cultural. Second, it allows us to cultivate a public workforce that affords public office the due regard. Third, there is a value added to all young people when they grow up in a society where people adhere to certain standards, like the one President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set, when she said that her government will comprise of people who uphold the highest moral standards.

The first of these reasons – correcting past and present subordination and exploitation of women must regrettably be out of vogue today as it has been in the past. Instead, a new twist on old tricks is infecting our public spaces, leaving us to wonder, if change will ever come to our country; when it comes to how our little girls and women are treated as second class citizens. Sadly, there are those who do not see anything wrong with the silence coming out of the Executive Mansion because that is how our society has been and there is no room for all of us to improve. Can anything explain why Mr. Willis Knuckles will arrogantly tell Liberian people that he is not going to resign after vile pictures of his private indiscretions are made public and being sold on the streets of Monrovia and distributed every where in the world than an entrenched culture of impunity?

Those of us in the position to speak out without fear of losing our daily bread must not only recognize and acknowledge the inequities in power relationship between Mr. Knuckles and the females in the nude picture; we must condemn the silence coming from the President and those within her close circles. This issue requires more than neutrality, because neutrality means we are unwilling to erase the effects of long-term discrimination that women have suffered. Unless we act affirmatively and condemn what seems to be condoning these kinds of acts, we will never be able to achieve the equity goals that the President and her associates espouse. Achieving change in the culture of impunity requires us to stop all patterns that resemble past failings in their tracks.

The second reason why we must speak against this and other social ills is not only that women constitute a higher percentage of our population, but that our future development depends on their quality of life. Our competitiveness as a nation depends on women, if not more so, because of their majority status, then on the fact that they have suffered disproportionate shares of oppression in nearly all spheres of social development in our country. If women are not prepared for meaningful citizenship roles and careers and must remain subservient to their male counterparts, our country is doomed. The pluralistic global society in which we live is one where women in other countries are becoming increasingly competitive. Are we preparing Liberian girls to face such challenges or we are tailor making them to be our sex mates and only that? If the trend continues, we will not be able to participate fully in the global marketplace.

Liberia is on the cusp of monumental political and social change, not leaving behind economic changes that could catapult the nation to global competitiveness especially when our indebtedness to world nations are being dropped. It is clear that new entrants into our labor force will have to be a majority of the women exploited since childhood by a culture that disregards the needs of girls and women; that is, if we give them opportunities to match their male counterparts. If half of the jobs in the global marketplace will require more than a college education in the future and majority of Liberian women remain as the sex toys of powerful men, our country is doomed. Unless the participation rates of girls and women in schools and the labor force are boosted and their exploitation halted, no amount of talk about change is likely to translate into reality.

The challenge that we face is not just to stand against the exploitation of girls and women, but to prepare enough of them to be lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and independent people, so that they too can walk the corridors of power and hold men accountable. In so doing, we will create more women role models to stamp the tide of the likes of Willis Knuckles in Liberia and the world.

By letting these moments to go without President Sirleaf condemning these issues, there appears to be no serious effort on the part of the Sirleaf government to protect women who are being sexually exploited by male counterparts. It is easy to ride the wave of women’s support to increase her popularity, but when it comes to protecting women from predatory practices, the President seemingly stands with her male elite friends.

When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, became the first female President of the Liberian state, many Liberians thought that the long history of women being exploited and subordinated by men, particularly those who have political power, wealth, and privilege; would come to an end. But it is now clear that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is just like the men that she replaced. She has been part of the male-dominated opposition movement for so long that the “iron lady posture” is not only symbolic, but a woman seeking in everyway to maintain the characteristics that made previous male leaders of the nation detested and ostracized. Female by gender, she used this garb to acquire power, but conditions have remained the same. The direct beneficiaries of her rule are her male confidants. Liberian women are mere “doormats” who must live at the whims and caprices of men. Their fate is sealed and they have no other recourse, but to resign to being used and abused. How come?

The argument that Theodore Hodge and others have made is that Mr. Willis Knuckles is a victim. His private matter was brought into the open supposedly by his political enemies, Edwin Snowe and Mardea White Snowe, including an unnamed female legislator. For this, he is a victim. The women, whom Mr. Hodge also described as victims were not mentioned in Mr. Knuckles’ apology in which he took minimal responsibility for his moral failings. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf promised the Liberian people that her government will comprise of people of the highest moral standing. She also promised to fight for “young girls raped, victimized, and exploited by sexual predators.” How would she accomplish this when her agenda is administered by one who used his top-heavy political power directly or indirectly to lure two females into a sexual act, consensual or coerced? No Liberian is a stranger to the fact that an assortment of decadent acts have gone on, and are going on in our government.

But there has to come a time when public officials stop and come to their senses. When will someone pay the price for poor judgment, which may border on abuse of power? The likes of Mr. Hodge would argue that the incident did not involve Mr. Knuckles’ staffers or people working for the government. We do not know that. We also do not know if these women can overcome the humiliation already heaped on them to reveal their identities. If one of the most powerful men in the country is the perpetrator, supported by the President of the Republic, where would they ever find refuge from the backlash that would be directed at them? The same reasons for which Liberian women have remained ostensibly mute on this subject: female legislators, judges, lawyers, pastors, writers, journalists, minister of gender, and the list goes on, is perhaps the same paralyzing fear that is keeping these women from revealing their identities.

As a Liberian whose proudest moments this week were the cancellation of our national debts, engineered by Mrs. Sirleaf, her endorsement of Mr. Knuckles’ lapses in judgment and the adverse message that it sends to Liberian girls and women, yield hurt and disappointment beyond measure. But more disappointing is that the ruling political party is willing to accept the notion that its government does not care about the young girls that are being exploited by powerful Liberian men and the office that citizens are expected to respect. Its failure to take a stand on this matter would be an issue in the next cycle of the presidential and legislative elections.

Opposition parties should ensure that whether it be Sirleaf or her successor – Unity Party must pay for its clear decision to support the status quo – the subordination of women; caring less about the effects of these kinds of acts on their well-being. Equally, people in the current government who have claimed the mantle for social justice, who do not speak out against this glaring disgrace that this matter has brought to bear on the government must also stand before the political seat of judgment when they decide to vie for public office in the future. This is no time for the kind of hypocrisy that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the ruling party played on Liberians, and are now repeating the same scandals that degraded women and made them the butt of men’s sexually predatory practices.

This decision by President Sirleaf may not stoke widespread public outburst, but there is no doubt that this is a huge taint on an important component of her legacy. Talk to Liberians, and they do not trust people in power because they believe that people in power are the repositories of vices that caused the 14 year of war. And Mrs. Sirleaf is showing that her commitment is not to cleaning up the mess, but maintaining the “good old boys network.” Many young Liberians, even matured ones, are not expecting justice because they know that the perpetrator is a friend of the President. Although Mr. Knuckles is a high government official who was caught red-handed in the most glaring way possible, he will never be punished. Instead, a systematic pattern of disregard for women will continue to operate under the presidency of a woman by men with impunity. What would our young people think and how will this go over in school halls and lunch rooms or on basketball courts and soccer fields?

© 2007 by The Perspective
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