Monday, 12 July 2010

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.

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