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Jane Wales

Jane Wales

Posted: March 3, 2010 01:20 PM

Advancing Women & Girls in Liberia

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"Women are part of the development agenda for the first time -- and we are making use of our time. Traditional culture has made us reticent. But, no more. Our eyes are now open and there is no way they will close again." These are the words of Liberia's Vabah Gayflor, Minister of Gender and Development. Soft-spoken and patient, when her moment comes to speak, her voice drops to a whisper that commands the attention of all in the room. The 19 philanthropists with whom I am traveling in Liberia are focused; we have met a truly powerful person.

Gayflor, who is not a member of any political party, is an unmistakable champion of the person and policies of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Her colleagues speak of two revolutions led by Liberian women, and the one to come. The first was their struggle for peace in 2003. The second came in 2005 when they registered to vote and stood for election. Now, the third revolution is a more sustainable approach to economic development, one that provides benefits for all.

Quiet power characterizes the women of Liberia with whom we have met. They and their daughters have been the victims of extraordinary gender-based violence throughout the country's 14-year civil war and still to this day, for the culture of impunity lingers on. However, in Minister Gayflor's words, "women believe their time has come." Meeting them persuades us that is so.

Throughout our day today, we met with women and girls who were being given economic opportunity, albeit modest, for the first time. Job creation has not come near to keeping up with the need, and remains an urgent necessity for President Sirleaf, who met with us over dinner last night. While some of those jobs will come from large corporations in search of coffee, rubber and cocoa, Sirleaf notes that the extractive industries are "capital intensive, and will not provide all the jobs we need." And so the prospect of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) attracts the donors with whom I am now traveling, leaders of the Global Philanthropy Forum and The Philanthropy Workshop West.

In a large building on Monrovia's main thoroughfare, we met with the exuberant members of the Liberian Women's Sewing Project, a pilot enterprise of Chid Liberty's Made In: Liberia, a promising new business to manufacture apparel that would be fair trade certified and a source of employment. Elsewhere in Monrovia, each woman who opens a stall at the Nancy B. Doe Market, funded by the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund, is required to open a savings account at the ECO Bank branch located within the market. And she is given access to daily literacy classes within the market walls. In a country where 60 percent of agricultural output and 80 percent of trading activities are carried out by women, ensuring that they have training and access to credit is essential.

Liberian women have found ways to advance other aspects of the Sirleaf government's Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Members of the West Africa Network for Peace Building (WANEP) told us of their efforts to increase women's participation in peace-building at all levels in the country, through advocacy, capacity-building, radio outreach and rural initiatives.

And the truly extraordinary women of West Point -- the largest slum within Liberia -- have formed their own West Point Women for Health and Development. Forty eight percent of West Point's population is comprised of children, 35 percent women (mostly single parents) and 15 percent men. In this area not yet reached by government services, these remarkable women concluded that "enough is enough" after seeing too many children raped and killed. They self-organized and took responsibility for their impoverished community, with each paying weekly dues of 30 Liberian Liberty Dollars (roughly 40 cents U.S.) With this money, they fund grassroots efforts to improve health and sanitation, reduce gender-based violence, provide literacy classes, reduce prostitution -- and see to it that the police do their jobs. And if the police fail them, as is so often the case, they take matters to higher authorities until perpetrators of violence are prosecuted and some form of order is achieved. Their annual budget is $10,000. With funding, they would like to expand their skills training to teaching a woman to drive a car. Newly empowered with that skill, she could be a taxi driver and make a living for her family.

So what is the role for private actors -- philanthropists and social investors? Is the right entry point a community based organization, an NGO that provides skills training and meets basic needs? Or is it to create the conditions for small enterprises to take seed, so that the economy can expand more than its current 5 percent per year. With funding and technical assistance, increased access to education, skills development, credit and inputs, women will be able to lift their families from poverty.

Women did not get the vote in Liberia until 1948. Their country did not get peace until the women demanded it in 2003. Now a woman holds the presidency, powerful women are heading ministries, holding Senate seats and women with no education and no obvious reason for hope have transformed West Point from being a daily, deadly danger to their sisters and their children. Their eyes are now open to the power they wield. Will they turn back? And how can the rest of us ease their path forward?