UN Human Rights Office Commits to Alleviate Plights of ECOWAS Indigenous Women Traders
-As ‘Women Beyond Borders’ Outlines Ordeal of Trade Barriers, Rights Violations
The Country Representative of the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights in Liberia Dr. Uchenna Emelonye has pledged to build the capacity of market women in human rights. “Let us work together and look at this from a group perspective. When we reach there, all of you should become Human Rights Ambassadors,” he pledged.
Dr. Emelonye spoke on 17 August 2020 at the One UN House in Monrovia when a delegation of market women paid a courtesy call.
Coordinated by Better Future Foundation (BFF) under its women’s leadership and socio-economic development program called Women Beyond Borders (WBB), the WBB executives shared their experiences and challenges with the UN Human Rights team during the meeting.
BFF President Augustine S. Arkoi introduced the delegation and noted that the women are WBB executives who are longtime inter-state traders within the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and beyond.
Mr. Arkoi narrated the history of BFF’s relationship with these women dating 2011 when BFF entered in a call for proposals for non-state actors’ participation in the regional integration process in West Africa and won a grant from the European Commission, through ECOWAS Commission as the contracting party, under the 9th European Development Fund.
BFF implemented the project to raise awareness among 597 inter-state women and 272 state border law enforcement agents in 13 counties of Liberia towards achieving regional customs union and common market within ECOWAS.
After that introduction, the women were asked to share their personal experiences and challenges.
WBB Acting President Mrs. Sangay D. Dunbar thanked the UN Human Rights chief for hosting the delegation jovially noting that for the first time she felt market women were being recognized.
She noted that since 1990 they have been fighting to bring food into this country, observing that supplementary foods are not enough in Liberia. “Even during the war, we went to neighboring countries and brought back food,” Sangay said.
“But our suffering is still continuing. We go to Mali and Cote d’Ivoire and bring thousands of bags of ground nuts and pay 4% customs at the border and yet when we arrive in Monrovia government people will take money from us again.”
“I have been using banks for many years. I participated in the CBL US-Liberian dollar auction for 10 years and I saved with banks and took loans. But the banking system let me down, people in these banks duped me and I lost all my money.
“Right now I am looking for capitol. We need a fund pool and our own storage for our goods. Micro loans need collateral and have high interests. We pay USD8,800.00 per year to a Lebanese for a two-door store. He has taken us to court several times because of default. Please help us,” Sangay begged.
Acting WBB Treasurer Mrs. Mama Sulonkemelee said inter-state women face many challenges in this trade. “Our biggest challenge now is lack of storage to store our goods,” Mama said, adding that law enforcement agents at times hold their goods for days before releasing the goods.
“In fact 10 days ago trucks with our goods were arrested and impounded at LRA (Liberia Revenue Authority at ELWA Junction for days until BFF intervened before they were released,” she noted.
Mama informed the meeting that at the new Omega Market, several women have paid for table spaces, plots and shops but noted that recently in a meeting with the mayor of Paynesville City Corporation “the government is saying it is not aware.”
Another WBB executive Mrs. Gayduo Ballaseneh added that the daily challenges are there. She cited a case last week when, without prior information, police and taskforce team arrived abruptly where they sell and destroyed their tables and goods, lamenting “even though we pay for the spaces.”
BFF President Augustine S. Arkoi summarized the cases introduced by BFF and presented by the WBB executives as bordering around food chain security, human livelihood, gender-based violence, women’s rights and empowerment. Right now the most urgent need is storage and possible Covid-19 awareness in Redlight Market.
Responding, Deputy Country Representative ……. Sonny noted that “We have heard you. UN Human Rights office is here to protect and save lives of all Liberians.” He outlined that his office works with the Government of Liberia to ensure compliance in human rights.
“We also work with the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), the Legislature, and others. A women organization like WBB is of interest to us: when women know their rights, they will demand for it. We will be willing to collaborate with you, especially in the area of capacity building of human rights.”
Also responding, the Country Representative Dr. Uchenna Emelonye said he was happy that the women were at the UN Offices. “Today we have hit two firsts: This is the first time we are meeting in person an outside group here since the lockdown. This is also the first time we are dealing with an informal group.”
“Right to food is basic. Thank you Arkoi for the support your team is providing for these women. Arkoi needs award for down-stream human rights work! People break laws because they go away with it. To deter this, we need accountability for proven wrongdoing.
“My first pledge to you is a contact point, next time contact us, the UN. When we show up where you have a problem, anyone will know you have a big backup. And we will see to it that the problem is resolved the right way.
“Secondly, concerning some of the issues such as food chain problems, security and others, we will take them to the right UN agency, like UN Food and Agricultural Organization for food security and UN Women for women’s empowerment.
“I will ask our Technical Team to work on this and we will revert to BFF in three weeks. Meanwhile BFF should write to me documenting this discussion as soon as possible.
“Let us work together and look at this from a group perspective. When we reach there, all of you should become Human Rights Ambassadors,” Dr. Emelonye ended.