Empowering some ladies (and men) in Nimba County
After a long, amazing week in Nimba County, Liberia, I have made it safely back to the DEN-L compound. So much has happened in the last week that I hardly know where to begin. My DEN-L colleagues from the Gender Action Program (Musu, Esther and Wehaty) and I traveled two hours by bumpy Liberian road last Monday to Bain Garr village in Nimba County where we invited village and clan leaders and representatives from the region to attend a workshop focusing on gender awareness. All of the participants are from small, rural, poverty-stricken villages, and many are illiterate or have undergone very basic levels of primary education (especially the women—there were a few that couldn’t even write their own names). Many of the women could hardly speak English even though it is the country’s official language. This is so because English is taught in school so the women who are not educated (especially those of older generations) are accustomed to speaking Mano, the local dialect in Nimba County that is used in the home.
The workshop involved both male and female participants and focused on themes such as leadership, power, socially constructed gender roles, gender-based violence and human rights. Our first section focused on leadership skills. When we were talking about good governance and leaders, many of the participants were naming former Liberian dictators who were brutal, oppressive and authoritarian (such as William Tubman—one of the most corrupt rulers in Liberian history) as model leaders. They named qualities such as “forceful” and “fearsome” as positive in a model leader. In addition, many participants expressed the belief that leadership is something one is born with rather than a skill that can be developed, which partially explains the high rates of nepotism and corruption present in Liberian government. My colleague Musu pointed out to me that authoritarian leaders have such a history in Liberia that many people associate good leadership skills with what they have been governed by. After spending hours role-playing, dialoguing, and participating in informational exercises, they began to open their minds to new ideas and fair leadership practices.
The other thing that blew my mind was the attitude towards women. While the participants knew they were attending a gender workshop and were interested in learning more about gender equality, the way in which both males and females spoke about women confirmed the reason why the female sex is so oppressed in Liberia. Men admitted to beating wives who were perceived to be “disrespectful,” sending their sons to school rather than their daughters, viewing women as unqualified and inappropriate for leadership and political positions, and denying their women of many basic human rights. The sad thing is that many of the women don’t know their own rights and don’t challenge the discrimination they are subjected to; rather, they help reinforce it by favoring boy children when it comes to education and healthcare, and by overloading girl children with work.
One of the exercises we did was to explain the difference between sex (biological differences between males and females) and gender (socially constructed roles assigned to males and females that are reinforced by culture, family and religion). Then we divided the participants into two groups based on sex and had the males list the work that is perceived to be typical for men and the females list that which is customary for women. When we reconvened, the list of female chores was about three times as long. We went through each task on both lists and asked the participants whether it was possible for both men and women to execute the named tasks. Although there was some debate (certain men vehemently objected the fact that women could set hunting traps, shoot a bow and arrow, or build a house until some ballsy man stood up and admitted that his wife could do all three) it was ultimately decided that both sexes were capable of carrying out all the tasks, and often did. In the end, it was shown that women’s work days are much longer than men’s. While men perform political and productive work, women perform political, productive and reproductive work. Men’s work days start when they arrive in the field (or wherever they work) and end when they come home in the afternoon. Women are up before the sun preparing breakfast, caring for children, and tending the house, and their work day ends after everyone in the house has been cared for and put to bed. The idea of a man having to come home and make his own supper is utter blasphemy. Additionally, the work that the women do is uncompensated and often unappreciated, even when it consists of some of the same tasks that men are paid for (such as hunting and harvesting crops). The men, on the other hand, are reimbursed for their work and control the family’s earnings entirely. Even when men perform tasks that are generally exclusive to women, such as plating hair or cooking , they are paid (men will only plate hair in a barber shop and cook in a restaurant; they will not perform these tasks for their family, as it is seen as offensive because it is not reimbursed).
After explaining all of this through exercises, role-play and dialogue, the participants became enlightened and an immense change came over the group. Women opened up and told stories about how their mothers, friends and even themselves slaved all day for their families without ever having a minute for themselves or being appreciated and respected. They spoke of losing children in the war, being forced to migrate to refugee camps in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and sacrificing everything they had for their families. Not only was their work unrecognized, but they often suffered domestic abuse from their spouses and had absolutely no marketable skills, education or opportunity to flee their sad situations without sacrificing food, shelter and school fees for their children. By the end of the gender session, men and women were brought to tears after recognizing all that women do for their families. Men stood up and made vows to never beat their wives again, to send their daughters to school, and to appreciate (and even help out!) with the work that women do.
We also reviewed human rights, and specifically women’s rights, as virtually all of the participants were unaware of the laws Liberia passed in recent years to protect women. The three main laws include that which protects women from domestic abuse (and their rights regarding divorce), that which guarantees women the right to inherit property, and that which protects women from all forms of rape. We also discussed the rights of the child, especially pertaining to child labor and underage forced marriage. The participants for the most part became enthusiastic and supportive of the laws once they were explained. They began cracking jokes about how the practice of marrying off very young girls to old men was still prominent in the region. One village chief (a very old man who had something to say about everything and had a habit of interjecting his views whenever he felt like it), who was sitting next to one of his wives (who couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18) was all of a sudden silent for the remainder of the workshop. I guess the disclosure of the fact that he could be thrown in jail for statutory rape and forced marriage really struck a chord.
I could go on and on about this workshop, as it was full of enlightening moments, the opening of minds, and—perhaps best of all—the restoration of hope for many. Women approached me afterwards enthusiastically telling me that they would write me in America to let me know that they have enrolled in school, no matter what kind of objections their husbands may have. In the end, I know that the success of this workshop will be based on whether the concepts continue to resonate with the participants, whether they are able to alter some of their former practices, and—most importantly—whether they are able to pass on that which they’ve learned to their fellow community members. After witnessing their transformation, enlightenment and enthusiasm, I have faith in the fact that they can and will do these things and that Liberia will be a better place because of it.