Tag Archives: children

“This too is Liberia”

That’s what Jerry, one of the workshop facilitators for the Lutheran Church’s Trauma Healing and Reconciliation program, told me as we made the less-than-smooth transition from paved roads to a rutted, muddy mess that passes as the international highway between the Ivory Coast and Liberia. We were on our way to Nimba, a frontier county that abuts Guinea and the Ivory Coast, to conduct conflict resolution workshops for Ivoirian refugees and their host communities. Assuming I had not yet experienced the joint-rattling potholes of rural roads, Jerry wanted to clue me in.

But I saw something else in Nimba, something besides treacherous roads, that deserved to be pointed out as Liberian. In Kranplay, a small town 10 miles from the Ivory Coast, a group of children played soccer in an overgrown field. At the sight of a foreigner with a camera, they came running. The result? Your stereotypical “Africa” photos of grinning children, snapped by every volunteer and tourist on the continent. Being stereotypical, though, doesn’t make the grins any less adorable. And for me, it doesn’t make the scene any less – dare I use the word? – inspiring. After all, the kids were a mix of refugees from the Ivory Coast and children from the local host community, playing together while their parents sat in a conflict resolution workshop. And eight years ago, children their age were given drugs and guns and told to kill.

In Kranplay that afternoon, those things had no impact. The kids were just kids, just playing. Though it’s sometimes hard to see through the decay and corruption and poverty and violence here, they too are Liberia.

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Whose rights are they?

With all the noise from the UN and NGOs about child rights, it’s easy to assume that all Liberians are agitating for those protections. After all, who wouldn’t want their child protected from the threat of violence? As I discovered in Nyehn village, the answer is lots of parents.

As I sat on the porch of the home of Gbanjan Dohn, the village leader, two young sisters lay on a mat nearby. The younger sister kicked the older one. The older sister retaliated with a hard slap. The mother responded with a spank. “In Africa, we have our own ways to controlling our children,” Dohn commented.

The other villagers crowded around the porch, escaping the downpour, nodded in agreement. With the NGO and UN-initiated push for children’s rights, though, they are afraid of losing their ability to raise their children as they see fit – and losing their children in the process.

The children of Nyehn

“They come around here and tell us that we can’t make our children carry buckets on their heads, or make them cut bushes with cutlasses, or carry water from the pump to our house. They say we can’t spank our kids,” complained one mother. “So we can’t control them, because if we do, the police could come around and say we aren’t giving our children rights. But then what can we do?”

Dohn agreed. “They’ve got all our children talking about their rights,” he explained. “But since we can’t punish them and raise them the way we used to, they’re not close to the community. They run off and do crime or drugs or get pregnant. We can’t do anything about it.”

The mother clucked and nodded in agreement. Her daughter, who became pregnant at sixteen, now lives in Monrovia and rarely visits her family.

Whether or not the push for children’s rights actually contributes to Liberia’s youth delinquency, this set of parents in Nyehn feels trapped. Nobody in their community has pushed back against the UN or NGOs, nor does Dohn know of anybody who has. The reason, he explained, is that they fear if they reject the push for children’s rights, the NGOs and UN will halt aid entirely. For a place so dependent on foreign assistance – almost every road, school, clinic, and community center in Liberia boasts a sign with the logo of the NGO that provided funding – the prospect of losing money from the international community is terrifying. So, even for a community like Nyehn, where foreign aid has not been adequate to meet the village’s needs, the residents still accept the choiceless decision placed before them: with aid, it’s all or nothing.

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“Its all politics” on the Day of the African Child

The International Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 – today – each year since 1991. The day commemorates the schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa who marched for education and language rights in 1976. Police fired on the demonstrating students, and more than a hundred people were killed in the weeks of protests that followed.

This morning, Senator Clare Jah, one of three female senators in Liberia’s 30-person chamber, wanted to celebrate in the plenary session by discussing a bill she wrote that seeks to carve out greater rights for children and women in Liberia. Among other things, the bill would impose stricter penalties for violence against children and the failure to send one’s children to school, as well as mandate that 30% of seats in government be reserved for women. The discussion, though, did not go as planned.

To be debated on the floor of the senate, a bill must first be reviewed by the appropriate committee, in this case the Judiciary, Claims and Petitions committee. Last Tuesday, Senator Joseph Nagable, the chairman of that committee, apparently announced that the bill would be fully reviewed and ready to be discussed by today, in honor of the Day of the African Child. But when Jah brought the bill up for discussion, Nagable claimed his committee had not finished looking over the bill.

“They’re delaying us!” Jah shouted over Nagable’s words, outraged. “They’re delaying it!”

Jah and Nagable volleyed heated words back and forth. After several minutes, Hon. Cleatu Wotoson, the president pro tempore of the senate session, rapped his gavel on the table to conclude the senate session. Jah protested, but it was too late – the other senators had already begun filing out.

Jah’s bill is the type that NGOs and the UN would love to see implemented effectively in Liberia. According to a 2008 IMF report, 67% of children under the age of 20 live in families earning less than USD 360 per year, more than 10% of children die before turning 5, and only 37% of children ever attend school. Rather than pay for their children to attend school, many parents instead send them out to the street to sell everything from donuts to flip flops and, ironically, books. According to Madeline, a woman who works at a Liberian community building NGO, several years ago the government tried to crack down on truancy, rounding up children they saw on the street and sending them to school. But, she said, the initiative was not successful.

On a side street in Monrovia, two boys play a makeshift game of soccer with bottle caps, batteries, and sidewalk chalk. On a Thursday afternoon, they were not in school.

Nagable has stated that he opposes Jah’s bill because many families can’t afford to send all their children to school – the average family in Liberia has five children, and school supplies are expensive. But when I caught up with Jah in her office after the senate session, she saw it differently.

“The women’s rights aspect of the bill will never pass,” she explained. “They have no interest in passing it. Simply no interest at all. The children’s part might pass, maybe as a gift before the elections, but they want to delay our rights.”

After speaking to Jah, I returned to the senate chamber. One of the secretaries still sat at her desk, and I asked her about the bill.

“I don’t know what he’s talking about, delaying the bill. Its all finished,” she explained, opening a folder on her desk to reveal the printed bill. “They gave us the copies already.”

So, why hadn’t it been discussed?

“Its all politics,” she quipped. “Its alllll politics.”

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