MONROVIA, Liberia – The first African country led by a democratically elected woman began recruiting women into its new postwar army Monday.
The new army will initially number 2,000 troops, and roughly 400 of them will be women, said Edith Bawn, spokeswoman for the government body responsible for overseeing the creation of the armed forces that includes representatives of the United Nations and the United States.
On Monday, dozens of women queued up outside a military barracks in the capital, Monrovia.
"I want to join the army because I love my country and feel that my country is more important than I am," said one of them, Edith Nelson.
Another woman, Kotati Jackson, said she wanted to join to become a medic. "I want to be of help to my colleagues, mainly the wounded ones," she said.
Women have served in small numbers in Liberia 's military in the past, but recruiting for the new army, which began in January, has only been open to men so far.
During the country's civil war, many women were forced by government forces and rebels alike to cook or carry supplies. Others became "bush wives," or sex slaves kept for years by commanders. Some led units as battle-hardened front-line fighters.
Liberian officials say the drive to recruit women is part of the country's broader goal of ensuring gender balance under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who inherited a poor nation struggling to recover from year of civil war when she took office in January as Africa's first elected female head of state.
Bawn called Monday's recruitment drive "a special push to attract women."
"Women bring a special sensitiveness to the military," Brawn said. "And they're very good at support roles."
Bawn and other officials said women will not be pegged to certain roles and will be able to serve in whatever capacities for which they qualify.
The screening process lasts two days, during which applicants take an aptitude test and undergo medical tests and conduct brief physical training exercises.
Reconstituting the army is considered a crucial to helping Liberia escape a cycle of coups and civil war that has torn the West African nation apart for a quarter century.
U.N. officials say the army should be small because its main purpose should be protecting the country's borders from outside aggressors.
About 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers are deployed in the country to bolster the peace until the new army and a new police force can take over security.