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Their Voices Will Be Heard

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Their voices compel me to work tirelessly and push harder. I hear the intense wailing, greeting us, as we approach a village deep in Bong County. A 14-year-old girl is dead; her womb damaged from the dead fetus that has been lying in her stomach for three days. The clinic is a full day's walk to the main road, and then an expensive 45-minute taxi ride.

I hear the voice of a charming 17-year-old, so intelligent and fearless that she could become the president of Liberia. Yet the only future she sees is selling her body to the highest bidder.

I hear their voices crying out:

"We are afraid of trouble, we [are] afraid of our boyfriends beating and abusing us."

"There is no work for us to do and we are not fit to work because we are not going to school."

"Our parents are depending on us, so if an older man can help, we will agree to be with him."

"They made the laws to protect us but they break it later because they said we are all family, so if somebody abuses us they can 'talk it the family way.'"

The national statistics in Liberia amplify their cries. Almost 50 percent of school-age girls are not in school and in some regions, this number increases to 60 percent.

By age 18, 48 percent of girls have already begun childbearing. And 93 percent of women interviewed said they were subjected to multiple acts of abuse; 73 percent of the respondents were targeted with rape, including gang rape. ( "Rapid Assessment of SGBV," WHO 2007).

How do we ensure that Liberian girls are not only "problem-free," but are also fully prepared to navigate their way to a productive adulthood? How do we help them to find their voices?

At Helping Our People Excel (HOPE), Inc., we have employed a holistic approach in working with adolescent girls. Our Sisters with Power Program focuses on personal/leadership development and advocating for supportive systems and policies. With support from AGALI, we successfully advocated for the passage of the Children's Law, placing the voices of marginalized youth, and especially adolescent girls, at the center of our efforts.

This law is significant as it provides both the policies that guide how we protect and empower girls and the validation and support needed to continue our work. The Children's Law is a major step forward for adolescent girls' rights in Liberia, and includes provisions to protect girls from child marriage, safeguard inheritance rights, and improve support for victims of physical violence.

Our current Nobel laureates, Madam Leymah Gbowee, a prominent women's rights activist, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first and only elected female head of state in Africa, embody the spirit to withstand the most desperate situations. Their tireless devotion to healing the wounds caused by the Liberian Civil War speaks volumes to what women and girls can contribute to the development of Liberia. This spirit captured the hearts of the Liberian girls as evidenced in recent decrees presented to our laureates:

... They (Liberian women) stood for peace when no one would stand... We will no longer stand by and accept conflict in our homes, our communities and our nation. We... will work to ensure that peace remains in Liberia.

We will... challenge the system of exclusion that has kept women uneducated, unprotected, un-empowered, under-served, and under-valued. We... will be stakeholders of our own development. We... are the foundation to which Liberia will be shaped.

These are the voices that inspire me to continue this work and relentlessly advocate for the programs and policies that will protect their future. These are the voices that must be heard.

Peace and development in Liberia will be sustained when our girls are given the best opportunities to learn, grow, and actively participate in their own development and the development of others.