Tag Archives: women

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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“Women, oh, women!”

Nobody here is in the dark about the upcoming elections for president and congress, but plenty of people – registered voters included – are unaware of the constitutional referendum that comes first. On August 23, voters will go to the polls to vote yes or no on four proposed changes to Liberia’s constitution: reducing the residency requirement for presidential candidates from ten years to five, increasing the retirement age for judges from 70 to 75, changing the date of the general election from October to November, and choosing winners in congressional elections by simple majority.

Candidates for office have been campaigning hard, but it is up to the National Elections Commission (NEC) to publicize the referendum, and by most accounts, they have done a poor job so far. So, to spread awareness, a local journalist from the Liberia Media Initiative has created a unique platform to bring the referendum to the people. At the bustling Rally Time market in downtown Monrovia today, John Kollie carved out a space among the stalls, setting up chairs, speakers, and microphones. With the help of a megaphone-toting, arm-waving assistant, he drew a crowd, holding their attention with thumping music, dancing, and free referendum posters and brochures. By the time the 6 panelists arrived – a mix of politicians, NEC officials, and professors – the crowd was ready for a debate.

Audience members look over free informational posters

The program is called Ducor Debates, using the Bassa-language name for Monrovia that was used before the settlers arrived from the US. Each week, Kollie chooses a crowded location and arranges for a group of panelists to debate the referendum and other political topics. Each panelist is allotted three minutes for their remarks, a time limit to which Kollie adheres strictly. “Otherwise,” he explained, “they’ll just use this as their mouthpiece. You’ve got to keep them on the issues. They’ll try to use the debate to attack each other.”

Today’s panelists chose different angles, from the NEC representative’s rundown of the referendum’s logistics (“You won’t be voting for people this time. There won’t be pictures on your paper. Its yes or no on August 23!”) to a former Chief Justice’s argument in favor of all the reforms (“You get more experience and more knowledge when you get older. Why do you want to make a judge step down when he’s just getting the most wisdom?”). At the conclusion of the formal speeches, audience members jumped at the chance to ask questions. Ideally, the audience members take their brochures, informational posters, and knowledge back to their communities, disseminating the information informally.

This week’s debate was aimed primarily at women, who have been influential in Liberian politics in the past, but still lag behind their male counterparts in terms of literacy and political awareness. Neither the government nor the NEC has found effective methods to reach out to women and other members of Liberia’s poor to spread the word about the referendum. To fill the void, a number of grassroots efforts, like Kollie’s Ducor Debates, have sprung up around the country. Ducor Debates, though, is regarded as one of the most effective, and its clear why. The debates are broadcast on 42 radio stations around the country, and the crowds love it.

Through cheers and boo’s, each politician stood up this morning and rallied the audience with a call and response chant. “Women, oh, women?” they shouted. “WOMEN!” came the instant reply, with more enthusiasm each time.

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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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