by Christine Ennulat, ChildFund International
Liberia’s 13 years of civil war ended in 2003. Nine years later the effects of war linger. In post-conflict societies, children are the ones who suffer the most as their parents struggle to rebuild shattered homes and livelihoods. Often, children come to be viewed as burdens, or even commodities. They became at risk for exploitative child labor, domestic violence and other abuses.
Healing has been slow. Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy of 2008 includes a statement that speaks volumes: “A whole generation of Liberians has spent more time at war than in the classroom.”
Some years after ChildFund began work in Liberia in 2003, staff began to realize that, despite the ongoing rebuilding of Liberia’s decimated education system, young children ages 5 to 8 were not enrolling at the rate they should, and those who did were not staying in school.
In May 2010, ChildFund began a program called Participatory Research and Learning (PARLER) to identify the obstacles to school attendance in 25 communities and try to remove them. The program is funded by the Union de Banques Suisses.
The centerpiece of PARLER is training older teens to facilitate participatory exercises (e.g., fun, animated games) with 5- to 8-year-olds to learn what keeps them from school. The exercises help children identify problems in their communities, prioritize them, analyze solutions and plan for the future.
Martin Hayes, ChildFund’s child protection specialist who helped launch the program, says, “In the long run, this helps build skills and leadership of the youth.” And it inspires older children to look out for the younger ones.
What kept the younger children from school, the youth learned, included bullying and harsh corporal punishment in the classroom. Girls faced the additional obstacle of parents keeping them home to do housework or prioritizing their brothers’ educations over theirs. Some of the children also would go to the nearby Nigerian peacekeepers’ base to beg instead of going to school.
Acting as advocates for the younger children, the youth brought these concerns to special committees focused on children’s needs. ChildFund has trained adult members of the committees to respond as appropriate, whether counseling parents or calling in authorities.
By July 2011, according to an external evaluation commissioned by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, 1,234 5- to 8-year-olds had been involved in PARLER sessions.
School enrolment in PARLER communities is moderately higher than in communities without the program, and retention also is higher. Children from PARLER communities also miss fewer school days and spend less time on household chores or jobs outside the house and more time on homework. In schools connected with the PARLER program, children suffer less corporal punishment; their parents are more likely to discipline their children verbally than physically. Children involved with PARLER even get sick less often.
The gains are modest, but they are consistent across many types of child-protection risks. Again, healing is slow. But this work is moving it forward.
These improvements flow from giving children and youth tools to improve their own lives. “We’re providing them with skills to protect themselves,” says Hayes, “but also life skills for when they get older.”
by Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia
ChildFund Liberia has received a certificate of appreciation from the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development’s Child Protection Network.
ChildFund was recognized for its moral, technical and financial support of the work of the Senate Committee on Gender Equity and Child Development, the Child Protection Network of Liberia, the Liberia Children’s Parliament and for assistance with passage of the Children’s Act. Other organizations receiving the Certificate of Appreciation included Save the Children, Plan Liberia and a few local federations.
Following the awards ceremony, ChildFund participated in the Liberia Children’s Festival hosted by UNICEF, with support from the Embassy of Egypt. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attended the celebration of children’s rights, made a special plea to the nation’s youth, many of whom remain involved in gangs and violence following years of civil war in the country.
“Once you make up your minds to leave those bad things,” she said, “we, too, will be willing to help. The future is in your hands. Those of you who want to go to school, we as a government will send you to school.”
President Sirleaf also visited the information booths set up at the festival by ChildFund and other agencies providing assistance to children in Liberia. At ChildFund’s booth, the president met with George D. Toe, community services worker, who provided an overview of ChildFund’s services.
Reporting by Emmanuel Ford, ChildFund Liberia, and Marcia Roeder, ChildFund Corporate Relations Officer
Over the course of January’s 31 days, we’re making a blog stop in each country where we serve children, thanks to the generous support of our sponsors and donors. Today we travel to Liberia, where TOMS just gave new shoes to children in a ChildFund-supported community.
The west African nation of Liberia is struggling to rebuild after 14 years of civil war. Still dependent on foreign aid, Liberia has the third highest unemployment rate in the world. Infant mortality rates are also high, and many children suffer from malnutrition, which can have life-long impact.
Although the civil war ended in 2003, it took a heavy toll on the education sector. School enrollment and retention rates are low. One reason for this is that students are required to wear uniforms and shoes to school. Without shoes, they can’t attend. A lack of shoes also means children’s feet are exposed to diseases, infections and cuts.
Earlier this month, ChildFund and TOMS delivered new shoes to three Liberian communities. The shoes were provided by TOMS. Its One for One™ program gives a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold. And TOMS plans to send shoes for the children not just one time but repeatedly, as they grow.
The day was truly amazing! As ChildFund and TOMS staff approached our first destination for shoe distribution – Bopolu Central High School – we could barely contain our excitement.
Children were lined up as far as the eye could see. Local education officers and representatives from the Liberian government were waiting for us to express their appreciation. After a few speeches and a whole lot of thank-you’s, we began the fun part – fitting shoes on the feet of eager children.
“I use to wear sandals to school,” one child told us. “My friends will not laugh at me again.”
With their old shoes in hand and new ones on their feet, children at Bopolu public school did an impromptu “TOMS Walk” in their TOMS shoes.
“I like my shoes. I also like the black color,” another child exclaimed. “I used to wear slippers to school. Thanks to TOMS, I got a new pair of shoes.”
Parents also voiced their appreciation. “ChildFund is doing a lot for our children. This will help retain our children in schools. Most parents are unable to buy a pair of shoes for their children,” one parent told us.
Another parent remembered that ChildFund’s President Anne Goddard visited Liberia in February 2011 to inaugurate the school built by ChildFund. “Now they have come with TOMS shoes,” he noted.
“This is a boost to our efforts in working with the children of Liberia,” said Oliver Fallah, a ChildFund staff member based in Bopolu, a community in Gbarpolu County. “It will help to increase the retention of children in schools. Having shoes from TOMS will also reduce the number of foot diseases children suffer from,” he pointed out. “The children sometimes walk to farms, schools and even on playgrounds barefooted. Parents with four, five and six children are unable to pay for copybooks [school workbooks], not to mention a pair of shoes. TOMS came at the right time to the right place.”
Discover more about ChildFund’s programs in Liberia.
by Anne Lynam Goddard, ChildFund President and CEO
If ever there was a country ChildFund needed to be in, Liberia is it. Following a brutal 13-year period of civil war that made children into soldiers and destroyed the social fabric of society, Liberia signed a peace treaty in 2003, beginning a long journey of restoration.
Having just returned from a visit to this resilient nation, I found positive signs of progress. In the capital, Monrovia, the story is a hopeful one. Everyone I spoke with believes the country is getting better. People are moving with purpose. They are working to rebuild. They say the most important thing they have is peace.
ChildFund arrived in Liberia two months after the treaty was signed. In those early days, our work focused on reintegrating child soldiers back into their communities. After years of civil war, societal rules fall away — rape and violence against women and children are just accepted as the norm. A generation grows up not knowing any different.
We played a major role in reintegration, and were recognized by UNICEF as number one in child-protection work because of our training of school authorities and police and military leaders — sensitizing them to gender issues and child-protection issues. The Liberian Ministry of Defense now has a child-protection unit. The government now has a Ministry of Gender and Development.
Although ChildFund has finished its reintegration work, Liberia still ranks at 162, just seven from the bottom, on the U.N. Human Development Index, a comparative measure of a country’s life expectancy, literacy and living conditions.
Women and children’s issues are top of mind for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president — the first woman leader of an African nation. When I met with the president during my visit, she acknowledged significant progress in the attitude of children — just through the look of hope and inspiration seen on their faces. The president has visited ChildFund’s early childhood care and development Center in Bopolu — and contributed to fencing around the center to improve safety for children.
The ECD center is managed by the Gbonkuma Women’s Group, whose members are also recipients of small loans to start income-generating businesses. Leader Ma Fatu told me that ChildFund Liberia has shifted the lives of many women and children who had no means of improving their lives to self-sustainable levels in their communities. Now this group’s mantra is “Women! Don’t sit there; do something positive!
I also visited a livelihood project in the Blamacee community near Monrovia. ChildFund Liberia, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has built houses for former Sierra Leoneans, who after almost 20 years of refugee status, are now integrating into Liberian society. We’ve also helped them obtain small plots of land for gardening, which provides a source of food and income.
In Liberia, women are a major driver of positive change. Women are enthusiastic about contributing. There is a feeling of hope; it’s a fragile sense of hope, but it’s palpable.
Join Anne on International Women’s Day for a chat on Facebook, March 8.
Post your questions related to Liberia and women’s issues on ChildFund’s Facebook wall beginning at 12 noon EST, and Anne will respond live from 12:15 – 12:45 p.m.
by Virginia Sowers, ChildFund Community Manager
ChildFund is among 29 organizations that co-signed a letter to U.S. House leaders expressing grave concerns about proposed reductions in U.S. humanitarian aid.
The bill (H.R.1) would cut global disaster aid by 67 percent, global refugee assistance by 45 percent and global food relief by 41 percent relative to FY10 enacted levels.
Already, less than 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget goes toward foreign assistance, a sum routinely overestimated by Americans.
“It is shocking to imagine that in the next major global humanitarian crisis – the next Haiti, tsunami, or Darfur – the United States might simply fail to show up,” the organizations wrote.
When such disasters strike, the absence of U.S. humanitarian aid likely would have a devastating impact on children who are by far the most vulnerable in chaotic situations.
In countries such as Liberia, where ChildFund has worked to help children recover from a violent civil war that ended in 2003, new worries abound with the recent influx of 70,000 refugees fleeing hostilities in neighboring Ivory Coast, notes Anne Lynam Goddard, ChildFund’s president and CEO.
Goddard, who traveled to Liberia in late February, met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who expressed concern over USAID reductions and her country’s ability to manage the refugee situation. “She told me her worst fears were coming true,” Goddard says. “This is a country that is successfully reweaving its social fabric, but it’s still very tenuous.”
In their letter to congressional leaders, the humanitarian and development organizations implored reconsideration of budget cuts that would “imperil the longstanding U.S. commitment to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance for those threatened by disaster and conflict.”
Humanitarian aid is saving hundreds of thousands of lives each year, including the lives of children who are eager to change the world. If you believe the U.S. should retain its leadership role in this compassionate effort, consider contacting your U.S. representative with regard to H.R. 1.
Update: The Senate is likely to consider a vote for the current FY11 budget on Friday, March 18, the day before their week-long recess.
International and national humanitarian, relief, and faith-based organizations will ask their members, donors, and supporters to contact their members of Congress to stop the budget cuts that affect the world’s poorest.
by Virginia Sowers, ChildFund Community Manager
As the first woman head of state of an African nation, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 72, is ever mindful of the obligations that accompany leadership – not just as president of Liberia but also as a role model in the world.
“I am aware of the tremendous responsibility,” she told a sold-out crowd at the Richmond Forum this past weekend in Richmond, Va. “I welcome the challenge with humility.”
Democratically elected in 2005, the Harvard-educated Sirleaf pledged national renewal after a long period of civil conflict and corrupt governance in her homeland. During the 14 years of turmoil, young children were recruited by the warring factions. ChildFund began work in Liberia in 2003 to help these children, families and communities reconnect and resume their daily lives.
Despite the country’s ongoing challenges to rebuild its infrastructure and economy, Sirleaf said she is “bullish” about Liberia’s future as well as that of the African continent as a whole.
“Africa is taking hold of its own destiny,” said Sirleaf, citing country-led poverty reduction programs as one of the centerpiece efforts. “Our civil society organizations are vigorous.”
As president, Sirleaf said her biggest accomplishment has been gaining international forgiveness for Liberia’s crippling national debt, thus freeing up still-scarce resources for education and innovation. “All of our little children are back in school,” she said.
Africa is a continent of young people and growing younger, Sirleaf noted. By 2050, the African youth population is projected to be 1.9 billion strong. On the positive side of that statistic, Africa is home to the world’s “fastest-growing labor force,” she said. But without investment in the critical basics of education, health, shelter, clean water and skills training for these young people, the risk remains high that they will be unemployed and apt to engage in violence. “The civil war, from which Liberia had recently emerged when my administration took over in 2006, was mainly fought by young men for whom the economy held no promise,” Sirleaf said.
Yet, Sirleaf is encouraged by the progress in her own country, including the rekindling of industry and commerce, and noted the harmonizing of economic policies across the continent. “The majority of African countries have created the environment for security and stability,” she said. “The majority are meeting the challenges of human security, jobs, education, health, sanitation clean water, all of those poverty-reducing measures that reduce conflict and instability.”
Today, thanks to field reporting by ChildFund staff in Liberia, we’re providing an overview of several ongoing projects that have made a difference in the lives in children in this country in recent months. We think you’ll enjoy these village reports as our “31 in 31” series continues.
> ChildFund Liberia received funding to establish 15 community-based multipurpose health huts in rural Zorzor. Community health volunteers and traditional midwives were trained and assigned to these newly constructed huts. On a recent visit to communities in the area, some of our team members were introduced to a very new arrival. This is the first baby to be born in one of the huts, which are equipped to deal with emergency births as well as other major health issues for the area.
> Following training by ChildFund Liberia workers on the issues of environmental hygiene and community cooperation, the inhabitants of Keliwu community worked together to build a road. Villagers contributed local materials, such as sand and gravel, and labored together to build a highway, replacing the rutted track that had seriously hindered travel to and from the village. Now, villagers can access clean water and supplies, health workers are able to reach the people most in need and children from the surrounding areas can more easily attend school.
> On a recent visit to Gbarpolu County, ChildFund staff met the residents of Bambu-Tah. They learned that Community Welfare Courts have been formed to deal with issues in the local community peacefully, youth committees are conducting peer-to-peer education in combating gender-based violence and increasing knowledge of reproductive health. With ChildFund support, a number of local women received grants to start a business that
will help support their families and themselves. The village chief welcomed team members with a white kola nut. In Liberia, this nut is traditionally broken and shared with the guests to symbolize the purity of heart of the hosts. Visitors, in turn, return the symbolic gesture by partaking of the nut.
> In northern Liberia, ChildFund has worked in partnership with the Zealakpala community to build a water pump. This community of 500 people, more than half of whom are children, had previously used the local creek for all of their water needs, resulting in high levels of waterborne disease. Furthermore, children walking to and from the creek faced risk of violence and other dangers. The new pump frees the villagers from making this hazardous journey and provides them with safe, clean water.
For more information about our work in Liberia, click here.
More on Liberia
Population: 3.4 million
ChildFund beneficiaries: More than 780,000 children and families
Did You Know?: Liberia means the “land of the free,” so named when the country was formed by freed slaves from the United States in 1847.
What’s next: Zambia turns 45.