I like data. I want to have numbers to back up the things I see and the assumptions I hear. If you have ever heard Katie speak, you have seen how real, emotional, and moving the stories of girls in Liberia are. Still, one story is not necessarily a trend.
Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time reading through reports issued by a few large NGOs, as well as the Liberian Government. These reports are dry. They provide numbers and statistics and coolly rehash Liberia’s tumultuous history. The stats help paint a big picture of what life is like in Liberia, but despite my yearning for data, I found that there is only so much you can fit into a spread sheet. The stories we have heard and the things our girls have experienced on the ground help fill the charts and survey data with a little humanity.
The figures I found are striking, but the way they play out in everyday life is the reason More than Me exists.
An estimated 447,000, or 73%, of primary-aged children are out of school in post-conflict Liberia. – UNESCO
Liberia suffered 14 years of civil war. Even before the war it was struggling with inflation, a weak economy, fragility, and corruption. The country is not being rebuilt; it is basically being built for the first time. In all of the reports I read, the large number of unemployed youth, many of whom have never been to school, is cited as a recipe for a return to civil strife. Liberia is a young country. One study I read found that 50% of Liberia’s population is age 14 or younger, with 75% of the population under 35, and a median age of 18. In West Point, where More than Me works, there are children everywhere. None of them are in school. We are changing the lives of girls like Morisline, who is first in her class, but whose parents cannot afford the fees for school. Sadly though, children are spending their formative years selling peanuts or cooking with their aunties. Just a few years of schooling has shown to make a huge difference in the life of a girl. She will have children later, have better job opportunities, and be less likely to contract preventable diseases. Liberia has a long way to go, but civil crisis has dissolved and left an education crisis. If a handful of girls are able to break the cycle it will reverberate through the community and, hopefully, help renew the country.
According police statistics, rape, often of girls between the ages of 10-14 is the highest reported crime. – USAID
We received a letter from Macintosh, one of our staff on the ground. A girl in our program, a girl who is only 10, was raped two days ago. This is insane. The above statistic is troubling; the email from Macintosh is horrifying. None of this is unique. There are a lot of reasons why rape is so common, too many to go through in a blog post. Think about this: there was no parent or guardian looking out for her, her friends were not around or could not do anything about it, and the perpetrator had to feel like he could get away with it and that raping a child was O.K.
Education will not stop people from taking advantage of vulnerable children. Education will change things in the long term and it does provide safe place in the short term. It boosts confidence, increases awareness, and builds social networks through friendship and mutual understanding. Our girls benefit when they have a safe place to go once a day and people who are expecting them to be places. We can’t stop every attack or make sure our girls are out of harm’s way 24 hours a day, but we are doing our best and when incidents do happen school provides a secure place to report, talk, and seek refuge.
Only 22% of public and community schools had seats. There is a 300:1 ratio of classrooms in good condition. – 2008 Republic of Liberia report
We send the girls in our program to private school because we can track their progress easier, communicate with the principal and teachers on a daily basis, and we know that they will have the supplies they need for learning. Still, this statistic- we are talking about seats here, not computers or chalkboards or anything else you might expect to find in a school- highlights the barriers to learning that have nothing to do with the girls we help. Many of our scholarship recipients show up to school without food in their stomachs (another stat I read said that most families below the poverty line cannot afford more than one meal a day), many do not have access to running water or a real toilet, and several do not have a regular place to sleep. We want all of our girls to do well in school, but it is no surprise when we receive reports from our field staff that a girl is having trouble in class. Our rec program in West Point, our school lunch program, and the regular visits our staff make to each child’s home are just a few ways we are trying to make sure our girls have the best chance of reaching their potential. Success might not mean straight A’s. Sometimes, it just means being able to sit, learn, and grow in a way that beats the odds.
These are just a few facts. The more we learn, the more we learn what we have to do. We are also learning how to better serve our girls in Liberia. It is one thing to read enrollment numbers. It is another to understand how this plays out when you are the first girl in your area to learn to read. Thanks to your help, we can share their stories and fill the numbers in with real details.
Editor’s Note: Macintosh Johnson is no longer employed by More Than Me due to violations against the institutions’ child protection policy. For more information, please refer to MTM’s official press release here.