By Rosa Whitaker | President and CEO, The Whitaker Group |
An African woman democratically elected to one of the highest offices in her country is usually a cause for celebration at the U.S. Department of State, but when Liberia elected Jewel Howard-Taylor as its first female vice president last year, the State Department said, “not so fast.”
Liberians could hardly find a more experienced and devoted public servant than Howard-Taylor. She served as a Senator since 2005, and holds two post-graduate degrees, making her one of the most educated members in the Liberian Legislature. She is well known for her humanitarian work in Liberian slums and has long been a symbol of triumph for Liberian women.
As vice president, she is now one of the most popular and powerful women in Africa. But, when world leaders convene in the United States around major forums (such as the upcoming United Nation’s 73rd General Assembly, last April’s Women in the World Summit, and last month’s U.N.’s High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development), Howard-Taylor’s absence has not gone unnoticed.
She has been offered by the U.S. government a visa that only allows her to travel no more than 25 miles from the U.N. It is the type of visa normally given to only the most despotic leaders.
Howard-Taylor is no despot. Her “crime,” however, is she used to be married to one: Charles Taylor, president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003.
Charles Taylor is deservedly serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from the Second Liberian Civil War. At his trial in The Hague in 2012, the presiding judge found him responsible for “some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
For Howard-Taylor, marriage to her husband was its own private hell. He was abusive, dictatorial, unfaithful, and deceitful. At the time of his indictment, Howard-Taylor was already estranged from her husband. While at first there were accusations that she benefited from his corruption, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission absolved her of any wrongdoing.
Since their divorce in 2006, Howard-Taylor has raised their two children, as well as children he fathered with other women. While divorce may legally dissolve a marriage, in Africa the extended family remains, and that includes her children’s half-siblings. She has provided for them without any help from their mothers (some of whom died during the war), their father, or the many millions he stole.
As a devout Christian, Howard-Taylor believes forgiveness and redemption are obligations to be taken seriously, and the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother” is not applicable only to those parents who are honorable. As such, when necessary, she communicates with Taylor about the children while also aiming to ensure the children harbor forgiveness rather than bitterness towards their father.
It is because of this limited communication that the U.S. Department of State claims Howard-Taylor is a threat worthy of highly restrictive measures.
It is a patently unjust standard that a woman this accomplished, resourceful and committed to public service be stamped with her ex-husband’s disgrace. Even at a time when women are freeing themselves from the stigma of having been some man’s victim, we are still often saddled with a presumption of guilt by association, collusion, consent, or at best, indifference, when it comes to the sins of the men in our lives.
By misdirecting its disdain for Charles Taylor, the U.S. Department of State is punishing a woman who only seeks to serve her country, be an agent of change and preserve what good remains from his wreckage: the children under her care.
It is also punishing Liberia. Unlike many government leaders attending major U.N. events in New York, Howard-Taylor cannot then travel to Washington to consult with members of the U.S. Congress about trade and investment, health care, partnerships to empower women, education or security cooperation in Liberia.
Howard-Taylor’s persuasive presence may continue to be absent from other important U.S. platforms on gender equality and development as long as these restrictions remain in place. By imposing harsh and unwarranted restrictions on the travel privileges of Liberia’s duly and popularly elected first female vice president, the US State Department deprives an entire country of Howard-Taylor’s passionate and authentic advocacy and an entire world of her intelligent and earnest voice.
Rosa Whitaker is the President and CEO of The Whitaker Group and former Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa in the Administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.