'Culture can be a challenge': Trudeau's Liberia visit champions equality rights

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says not every country moves at the same pace when it comes to recognizing human rights, including same-sex marriage and other protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Nobel winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's presidency doesn't necessarily mean women fully empowered

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      Africa and the rest of the world will never achieve peace and stability without empowering women and girls — and encouraging men to support them, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday on the first day of his visit to Liberia.

      "When you try and settle a conflict that doesn't involve women in the solution, it's not going to last," Trudeau said in the capital of Monrovia during a panel discussion on the leadership roles that women can play in peace, security, governance and sustainable development.

      Trudeau opted for Liberia — an impoverished country in West Africa that lived through years of brutal civil war and was hit hard by the deadly Ebola epidemic in recent years — as the first stop on his first visit to Africa since he became prime minister.

      He did so, he said, in part because of the leadership of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in securing and maintaining peace following civil war.

      Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf met Trudeau when he touched down in Monrovia Thursday morning. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

      The symbolism dovetails nicely with a decision by the Trudeau government to put gender equity and the empowerment of women and girls at the heart of its international development strategy, which he talked up to the friendly — and sometimes adoring — crowd gathered for the panel discussion at city hall.

      "We have to pierce through the perception that women's issues are only for women to talk about and to fight about," Trudeau said as he encouraged men to join the battle to improve the lives of women and girls in order to improve the lives of everyone around them.

      He did not shy away from saying that development assistance should include access to abortion. Earlier in the day, however, the prime minister danced around another controversial question about human rights in Liberia.

      'Doing the right thing'

      "The fact is, different countries have different paces of evolution in terms of recognizing and enshrining those rights, but we can see that there has been tremendous progress over the years in many different areas," Trudeau said when asked to address the fact that many in Liberia do not condone same-sex marriage.

      Standing beside Johnson Sirleaf at a joint news conference, Trudeau praised the Liberian president for the leadership she has shown on female genital mutilation, another human rights issue that affects the region.

      "I understand that culture can be a challenge in pushing that, but doing the right thing is something that people shouldn't shy away from," he said.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is asked about his discussion with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf about her countrys' record about rights for women and the LGBTQ community. 3:00

      Asked for her reaction to Trudeau's comments on LGBTQ rights, Johnson Sirleaf tried to walk a fine line between homosexual relationships and the country's law prohibiting anal intercourse.

      "Liberia has no laws that restrict the rights of individuals to their own choices," she said.

      Trudeau also unveiled a host of spending initiatives, including:

      • $10 million over five years, beginning this year, to support the activities of UN Women in West Africa.
      • $1.5 million this year to a UN-backed financing-acceleration instrument meant to enhance the engagement of women in peace and security.
      • $1 million to support the UN Development Program for the 2017 Liberian election, including encouraging the participation of more women in politics.

      Attempt to 'rekindle' relationship

      Trudeau also emphasized the importance of making sure girls are able to stay in school, a challenge in a region with some of the highest rates of child marriages in the world.

      He visited a local elementary school run by the non-governmental organization Right to Play, where he was greeted by drummers and dancers, and pitched a ball down a field for kids to kick.

      At one point the former schoolteacher even took over a reading comprehension lesson in a sweltering classroom, calling on the students who eagerly raised their hands to answer his questions.

      The fanfare Trudeau received throughout Liberia — at the school, he urged the dozens of children who rushed up to greet him to make silly faces for the camera — is a far cry from what greeted Johnson Sirleaf during a visit to Ottawa nearly a decade ago.

      Then-prime minister Stephen Harper was apparently unaware she was in town until she was introduced while sitting in the gallery overlooking the House of Commons.

      The awkward moment in diplomacy speaks to the fact that Canada and Liberia have quite a limited relationship, but both Trudeau and Johnson Sirleaf spoke about their desire to rekindle it.

      Ian Smillie, a long-time Canadian development specialist who has written extensively about the violence linked to diamond mining in West Africa, said he is glad to see Canada taking an interest in Liberia, even if the economic benefits are not obvious.

      "It is a fragile state whose fragility is due in part to the fact that nobody in the past century thought it was important enough to pay attention."