When Beatrice finishes teaching at one o’clock every day she makes her way to the farm, her only means of income. While most other women get to the fields by six every morning, she has to work extra hard in the afternoon to make up lost time. When asked why she does it, she simply says, ‘I want to help. I want my community to be educated.’
Jalay’s Town, where Beatrice lives, is a nine hour drive from the capital, Monrovia through the counties of Montserrado, Margibi, Grand Bassa, River Cess and Sinoe. Along with five other towns, it forms part of the Upper Wedjah District. More of a village than a town, it is one of only a handful of communities that has access to Sapo, Liberia’s first and only National Park. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful areas of the country, but access to education is an issue for every single family here.
‘We are just trying,’ Beatrice says as she explains how she’s responsible for 67 students in the kindergarten class at the town’s only school. The other three teachers manage the remaining 106 pupils. From Beatrice’s tin roofed house, Upper Wedjah District Public School is less than a ten minute walk away. ‘There are many children but the government is promising to bring us more teachers,’ Beatrice says. ‘The District Education Officer and the County Education Officer visited the school and said we don’t have enough staff. They are right. We have too many children and not enough teachers.’
Set in a clearing on the edge of the village, the school comprises of a two block, concrete compound. Painted sky blue with glassless windows, students from kindergarten to the 6th grade sit at mall wooden desks facing a blackboard. For a school in the Western world this would mean children from the ages of four to eleven. But in Liberia, it’s not unusual to see men and women in their 20s or even 30s still at school.
Universal primary education is one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for Liberia. However, it is hard to see that being achieved by the target date of 2015. The government itself, headed by Africa’s first elected female President, launched its National Girls’ Education Policy in April 2006, making universal primary education free for every Liberian child. But young girls and boys selling peanuts, fried plantain and boiled eggs on the streets or laden down with buckets of water on their heads is still a common sight all over Liberia.
In the rural areas, like Jalay’s town, access to education is even harder. For those continuing their schooling beyond grade six, it’s a two and a half hour walk to the nearest high school. It means for many women, their academic education simply stops. ‘I finished school in the 11th grade,’ Beatrice says. ‘But I don’t know any women around here who graduated from high school.’
The recruitment of female teachers, like Beatrice, in Liberia is a huge problem. At the moment, USAID says only fifteen out of every hundred teachers are women. That’s an improvement from 2007, when it was just 8%, but teaching in Liberia remains a very male-dominated profession. ‘I don’t know the reason why. I just can’t tell,’ says Beatrice. ‘Women did go to school but many dropped out because of the war.’
Cultural constraints, family responsibilities and access to education make it a lot harder for women than men to move up the career ladder in every profession in Liberia. In a country ravaged by 14 years of civil war, it was hard for everyone to get an education but it was the female population who suffered the most. According to the CIA World Fact book, nearly 60% of women over the age of 15 in Liberia can’t read or write. For men, it is closer to 30%.
So, for a profession where literacy skills are paramount, it is easy to understand how Beatrice is the only female teacher in her district and among a minority in the entire country. It says a lot about the determination and passion of this woman to work without any money for six years to ensure the next generation of women stand a better chance in life. ‘The government promised they will pay me, and I believe that they will pay,’ she says. ‘They promised, so they will do it.’