Negotiating with Child-Soldiers in Liberia
This blog is about giving you a sense of what it means to be a female negotiator and what it looks like. The negotiation styles are as varied as our personalities! But those traits we are so used to hearing are weaknesses in negotiation- empathy, softness, or seeing the other side- are powerful tools when we learn to recognise their strength. So on occasion, I will be presenting real-life stories of wonderful women, and the ways they’ve applied these skills in negotiation.
MSF in Liberia
Marelle Hart’s story is fascinating! Originally from the Netherlands, Marelle spent 4 years working for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) Netherlands. She was responsible for its project in Liberia during the country’s first civil war (1989-1997). This project included about 30 expatriates and several hundred local staff, spread across health clinics and feeding centers around Monrovia and the countryside.
Along with her Project Manager, Marelle was responsible for centralising the project in Liberia. This included briefing and debriefing the MSF staff on the situation on the ground, and following up on medical and financial reports.
On a trip to Liberia for work, Marelle encountered a harsh reality. The country was ravaged by a multi-factioned civil war, civilians suffering from malnourishment, and thousands of child-soldiers, as young as 8 or 12 years old, their families oftentimes killed.
On one trip to survey MSFs health clinics and feeding centres, Marelle’s convoy stumbled upon a village violently looted by hungry soldiers. The convoy was instructed to evacuate immediately. Such pillaging was commonplace in Liberia at the time. MSF convoys were sometimes looted, cars were taken away by soldiers, and the entire mission would occasionally have to be evacuated to the neighbouring Ivory Coast when things got too dangerous.
Transformation Through Empathy
One situation in which Marelle recalls having to use her negotiation skills was in passing checkpoints across the country. At these checkpoints, “manned” by child-soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs larger than themselves, MSF teams were required to dismount their vehicles, provide the tiny soldiers with identification & signatures, and gain their trust in order to get through.
Marelle would talk to these child soldiers and ask them questions about their childhoods, when they had seen their family, or when they had last been to school, which would soften them up and lower suspicion. She recalls a case where the soldier who took her to the checkpoint was particularly threatening but transformed his tough behaviour completely once she had started asking him questions. Suddenly, he was a child again, smiling and calling her his big sister as he walked her back to her vehicle.
Negotiating as a Woman
The biggest challenge of the negotiation was earning the trust of a hardened child who had become accustomed to very violent surroundings. As a woman, it was easier to have them see you as a mother or a sister. Being able to engage with them in a softer approach, and speak calmly and understandingly was key to building this trust.
Marelle also found being a woman useful to her job when briefing and debriefing the MSF staff, because many of the talks were quite emotional. The workers had seen and experienced very difficult situations and needed empathy.
Funnily enough, when I asked Marelle what the most challenging thing about her job was as a woman, it was not crossing a war-ravaged country in West Africa. It was the fact that as a project assistant, despite doing the same work as the male project manager, Marelle got much less recognition for her work, and never got the title that suited her responsibilities.
She was not the only one- most all of the project managers were men, while their assistants were women. It is easy to think of Europe as a capital of enlightenment, and yet, such disparities in professional titles and roles are rampant across Europe to this day, almost 30 years later.
Changing the Course of History- Women in Liberia
The role of women in Liberian history is fascinating and well worth reading into, starting with Africa’s first female president- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf held office for 12 years following a lifetime of political leadership and strong opposition to the various despots that preceded her. Women played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s second civil war, through a persistent and widespread campaign- well-documented in the extraordinary movie “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”.
Want to share your story as a woman negotiator? Know a friend who would? I would love to hear about and share your experiences! PM me anytime on FB, Instagram, or directly to firstname.lastname@example.org
See you next post!
Founder of Negotiatress