Monday, 12 July 2010

Liberian woman in the centre circle

There's a perception - especially from the international community - that in a country led by Africa's first elected female President, women in Liberia are taking the lead in all walks of life.

It’s true there are more female ministers than there have ever been, new legislation has been passed to protect and promote women’s rights and some women are being given chances in life that they had never experienced.

However, women still firmly remain on the bottom rung of society. They're the most vulnerable members of the community in terms of access to education, access to health and access to justice.

Vivian Howard is one woman stepping out of that mould. She’s a single mum, who cooks and cleans just like any other woman in Liberia – but in her work life she’s in charge of 22 strong, athletic men. The first and only centre female referee in Liberia with a FIFA badge, Vivian is standing shoulder to shoulder with the men of Liberia.

To listen to my report - click on the link below

The strength of a woman

‘I’ve seen things on this island that aren’t right in a civilised world,’ declares Deborah Reeves to a gathering of more than forty women in a church in the West African country of Liberia. ‘We’re a forgotten community, just fending for ourselves. Noone sees us. It’s like we’re not even here.’

Deborah lives on Pagos island, an area of land completely surrounded by swamps in the capital of Liberia, Monrovia. There is no clinic, no police station, no government school and no electricity. There isn’t even a track, good enough for cars to use, connecting them to the main road. ‘We’re just a community here on our own,’ she adds.Deborah has brought the surrounding communities of Gio Town, Congo Town Back Road and Mudhole together to talk about how they, as women, can stand as one to get the government to act. As they sit in the stifling heat, some with their babies strapped to their backs, others with a small child at their knees, slowly, one by one they get the courage to stand up to tell their story.

One girl, more of a teenager than a woman, describes how she started walking to the nearest clinic when she felt her first contraction. It was dark, she was on her own and she had a good two to three hour trek ahead of her. She ended up giving birth to her baby on the way. As she stands in front of the women, with passion and sadness in her eyes, she explains how she tried to get the baby to take its first breath. She had no idea how to do it, so she lay there on the road as the baby died in her arms. ‘I didn’t want to talk today,’ she says. ‘But this is just disgracing women.’

This is one of many horrific experiences the women offer up to each other. Some describe how they have to keep their children away from school during the heavy rains out of fear of them drowning in the over flowing swamps. The nearest government school involves wading through the polluted and dangerous waters. Others talk about the poor sanitation, defecating in plastic bags which are then thrown in the bushes or nearby water. The pastor’s wife stands up to address the issue of security. As soon as the sun goes down, the entire island is plunged into darkness. Without any electricity, she says she won’t go out because she’s afraid of the armed robbers.

The women have come together on this day to give each other confidence and encouragement for what lies ahead of them the following morning. Liberia’s first radio station for women, Liberia Women Democracy Radio, has invited them to take their concerns to the station and direct them to government officials themselves.

As they arrive at 9am, many dressed in their best outfits, the women sit patiently on plastic chairs waiting for the forum to start. The Assistant Internal Affairs Minister arrives and then an hour or so later, the Commissioner for Congo Town walks in, the man responsible for all four of the communities the women represent.

It turns out the Commissioner had never even been to Pagos island, an area with more than fifteen hundred inhabitants. He wasn’t entirely sure where it was and more than twice, referred to it as Piggos Island. He became angry none of the islanders had come to his office to introduce themselves to him, blaming the lack of services on NGOs. One woman said she had gone to his office twice but was turned away. The Commissioner’s response was brisk and abrupt claiming it was probably because she hadn’t brought a letter with her. The Minister was more understanding but very vague and generic with her responses to questions referring to the problems of access to health, sanitation, education and roads.

But what inspired me the most was the women’s determination. Their passion and strength to get their voices heard. Their absolute steadfastness they weren’t leaving that room without some form of result. These are women from a country, recently out of a brutal and shattering fourteen years of civil war. A country which achieved peace because of the thousands of women dressed in white, who sat on the airfield in the scorching sun day after day as the former President, Charles Taylor drove past on his way to the Executive Mansion. They risked their lives, refusing to move until he agreed to go to Accra for peace talks. Under the spotlight of the international media, he acceded and the war ended with the country voting in Africa’s first democratically elected female President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

To see these women, who have very little or no money, some without husbands, and many have who experienced indescribable crimes of sexual violence during the war, get together and fight for change really is staggering. Women of all ages and backgrounds uniting and breaking the traditional roles of subservience to give their children and neighbours a better life. It invoked so many feelings; pride at being a woman myself, sorrow that these women have found themselves in this situation in the first place and huge admiration. These ladies aren’t just simply accepting their lot in life, they are standing in unison battling for a better one.

The forum concluded with the Commissioner agreeing to visit Pagos Island on the first Saturday of the following month to try and understand the problems these women face on a daily basis, a huge success for a man who said it wasn’t his job to actually go into the communities. The minister said she would personally find out what funding initiatives were available for the women to begin setting up their own businesses, something the journalists at LWDR recorded and claimed they would follow up. And the women decided to set up an official organisation to keep their movement going, eager to keep their enthusiasm and zest for change alive.

As the government officials get up to leave, one woman jumps from her chair and with all her might cries, ‘Women O women,’ the traditional cry to rally women in Liberia, a cry that depicts, in my mind, the true strength of a woman.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Is electricity a privilege or a right?

Let’s consider single mum, Victoria Johnson

Every day, the thirty one year old can be found in the same spot on the side of the road in Congo Town in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia selling pouches of water. ‘Cold water, cold water,’ she shouts as she shelters under a makeshift umbrella from the torrential rains. It’s rainy season in Liberia, making it even harder to earn a living in this West African country.

Victoria doesn’t have electricity, so she keeps her water chilled in a cool box. She needs to buy two blocks of ice to do this, reducing her profits to around just sixty cents a day.

‘I would make more money with current,’ she explains. ‘I could buy two sacks of water instead of one and would be able to keep it cold. I could make plenty money.’

It’s the same for her neighbour who sells phone cards. In the evenings, a single light bulb operated from a small battery powered pack, can be seen dangling from his multi-coloured umbrella. At night most of the city, home to more than a third of Liberia’s 3.5 million people, is cloaked in darkness. There are no street lights. Battery operated lamps shine dimly from the odd home. Children gather on street corners to do their homework. People cram into video shops to watch the latest Premier League or Serie A football game, paying around 30 cents each for generator costs.

In fact, people say many hadn’t even seen a generator before the war. Now, everyone is scrambling to raise the money to buy one. The cheapest is around US$ 100. But in a country where the average Liberian lives on less than one US dollar a day, the cost of a generator isn’t the only obstacle. A gallon of fuel is currently US$3.50. So, for the average family to have just 12 hours of electricity a day, the monthly costs can be anywhere from US$ 240 to US$ 300 – something only affordable for the moderately wealthy.

It wasn’t always like this. Before the country’s 14 years of civil war, much of Monrovia and the surrounding areas were lit up by the Liberia Electricity Corporation. There was even a rural electrification program, operating eleven diesel out stations across the country. However, the war took its toll, destroying all of the power stations and most of the power lines.

In 2006, when Africa’s first democratically elected female President came to power in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf cited electrification as one of her first goals. Four years on, just 18% of the capital is wired. Some would argue there is hope though. Brazil has reached an agreement with Liberia to build a new hydro electric plant. Plans to build a new suburb on the outskirts of the city, using technology to convert sewage into power, are going through at the moment. Off grid solar plants have been installed for Liberia’s police barracks. And what about Buchannan Renewable Energies, the company that declared it was going to make Liberia the world's first sustainable biomass-driven economy? Huge billboards, still adorn the capital, ambitiously declaring ‘BRE – Lighting up Liberia’. But more than 18 months after the groundbreaking ceremony, construction of the new carbon-neutral power station is yet to begin. Instead, the thousands of tons of woodchips made from Liberia’s old rubber trees have been exported to Europe. Not one used to generate electricity for Liberians.

But this hasn’t stopped people from taking the matter into their own hands. Walking through communities in Sinkor, Matadi and the Old Road, wires flail precariously from house to house. People are constructing their own electricity grids with makeshift leads to share the wealth of the few generators, as well as making a few extra dollars for themselves. But this has brought a whole host of new problems to the capital. Last week a 31 year old man was found dead in the Matadi area of Monrovia. He was catching frogs in the middle of the night when he grabbed what he thought was a washing line and was electrocuted to death. It was actually someone’s homemade electrical wire. The same thing happened to a 17 year old boy the week before. These aren’t cables constructed by trained electricians, they’re poorly made and strewn haphazardly from house to house, some as low as the height of a child.

So, can electricity really be considered a right? Many Liberians would argue it can. ‘I can’t come outside at night,’ says Victoria, the cold water seller. ‘It’s scary. It’s dark. I’m afraid the armed robbers will knock me down.’ For women, the dark streets pose a bigger threat than just criminals. The high rates of rape in Liberia are another reason why women are too frightened to venture out alone at night. And it’s the same story for thousands of Liberians all over the capital. The lack of electricity is holding everyone back. It makes starting up a business costly. It makes food and medicines expensive. It makes even simple things, like charging your phone a hassle. Imagine a country with seas plump with fish that could be caught and kept fresh for longer than a day, communities no longer afraid of going out after the sun has gone down, and women like Victoria able to do more out of their lives than just sell cold water for 60 cents a day. ‘I don’t always want to sell water. If I can get current I can start my own business,’ she says. ‘If I can get current, I can live. Without current I can’t live.’

Living in Liberia, I would argue electricity is a right, not a privilege.