Racing Against Time: Saving Fatu (and Others) from Sexual Abuse and Socioeconomic Marginalization in Liberia
By James Kerkula
I was on a quick 5-mile run on Sunday afternoon January 28, 2018 when my phone rang. It was Nathaniel Kerkula, one of my brothers in Monrovia, Liberia. “Hey Nathaniel, what’s up?” I asked. “I am fine brother, but we got a problem,” he replied. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “John’s daughter, who is staying with Joe Johnson’s Mother, is pregnant,” Nathaniel responded.
He continued, “We had a meeting with the guy who got her pregnant and he admitted that he did it.” I asked about John’s whereabouts and Nathaniel said John was at the meeting, but they don’t know what to do. “Where is the girl?” I asked. Nathaniel replied, “The little girl is still at the old ma’s house, but we don’t know whether the old ma will allow her to stay there.”
He went on, “The lady is very old…She has trouble taking care of herself. I don’t think she can take care of herself and the little girl. “So, what do you want me to do?” I asked. Nathaniel responded, “That’s why I called you…She will need support, but I don’t think the guy who impregnated her is able to support her. He occasionally works, but he doesn’t even have a place to live…I think you should ask Joe Johnson for the little girl to remain with the old ma.” Okay, I will call Joe when I hang up from you,” I assured Nathaniel. “Okay,” he said.
I called Joe Johnson when I hung with Nathaniel, and Joe stated that his mother had spoken with him about the pregnancy. Joe and I agreed that the girl would remain with his mother and we would look for the best possible way of helping.
Barely fourteen years old, this little girl is my niece whom I have never met. About five years ago, my sister Williette Kerkula called from Liberia and said John’s wife had left him with six young children in Gbayanta (our village in Todee) and followed another guy to Monrovia. Williette took in one of the girls and took another to Joe Johnson’s mother for school in Monrovia. Both girls were doing well in school until this pregnancy.
Fatu’s (not her real name) pregnancy is just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to abuse and socioeconomic marginalization of Liberian women. The country’s multifaceted-interconnected problems seem daunting at times: A population with majority living in extreme poverty, a nation with shameless history of grown men preying on little girls and young women, and the list goes on. As the Time noted, “Violence against women has deep roots in Liberia. Even before the civil conflict, society was profoundly unequal.”
Perhaps the principal legacy of Liberia’s 14-year civil war (1989-2003) and the deadly Ebola Disease Outbreak (2014-2015) is the unimaginable human sufferings. Children who were coerced into joining the fighting are regrettably grappling with their past. Under heavy burden to provide for themselves, underage girls have become more susceptible to sexual exploitation. Many end up joining the prostitution ring out of desperation. As The Daily Beast put it, “…the culture of transactional underage sex is a sad legacy of Liberia’s brutal 14-year civil war…”
Paradoxically, this tiny country has historically produced powerful women-leaders: Chief Suah Koko – first female paramount chief of Liberia; Angie Brooks Randolph – Liberia’s renown diplomat, first African and black female President of the United Nations General Assembly (1969); Antoinette Browne Sherman – first female President of a University in Africa – University of Liberia; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – first female President (elected) in Africa.
Although women have played important roles in Liberia’s political and socioeconomic development—nonetheless, their number and influence in shaping national priorities dwarf that of men. As Monique John of Women’s e-news noted, “The country, however, is taking steps sideways and backward – as well as forward – when it comes to investing in the well-being of girls and women”
STEM Education: A Parachute for Empowering Liberian Girls and Young Women
Given the dire circumstance described above, what’s the best way forward for empowering Liberian girls and young women? Although there may not be panaceas for immediate results, there are some long-term solutions. One solution may lie in bridging the knowledge-gap through high-quality STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education for women—provided in a safe, nurturing learning environment. To this end, Catherine (Kit) Nugent writes: “Why is advocating for STEM education and equity a gender issue? The answer is simple. STEM is where the jobs are…Align education with high demand careers and encourage young girls and community leaders to petition for gender equity.”
However, for STEM education to drive change in Liberia’s entrenched political and socioeconomic landscape, a new paradigm is warranted. One such model is the emerging Liberia Institute for Girls - Todee (LIG) project, currently in its planning stages by a group of Liberian and U.S. partners – www.universityoftodee.org. (Note: For full disclosure, I am one of the coordinators of the GUT project).
Abstracts from the LIG’s business plan read: The LIG’s seeks to “Teach a Girl to Fish” – by aligning her education with STEM-careers and habit of health, encourage her to strive for gender parity blended in Christ-like compassion, and connect her with exemplary global women-leadership. LIG education and other amenities will be provided in a protective culture of grace environment where girls will be girls without fear of harassment, and equally accessible to all students without regard to parents’ ability to pay; hence, freeing each girl or young woman to “learn to fish or prosper.”