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Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 2007


Liberia removing barriers to girls' education

Making schools safer is part of push to improve literacy.

(03-16) 04:00 PDT Monrovia, Liberia
If a new girls bathroom hadn’t been built at the N.V. Massaquoi School in this capital city’s largest slum, 8-year-old Shalom Venson may never have returned to school.

Before the restroom was installed in November, the elementary school’s few female students were forced to use a nearby field or coed bathrooms that lacked privacy. Since countless girls had been raped during the 14-year civil war that wracked Liberia before it ended in 2003, a bathroom break had been viewed as a dangerous trip.

Although the conflict is over, sexual violence is still prevalent, education officials say, causing parents to keep their daughters at home when bathrooms are not available. Without separate bathrooms, girls “wouldn’t come to school,” said Joana Foster, senior adviser on gender issues for the United
Nations Mission in Liberia.

When Oprah Winfrey opened a $40 million school in January for 150 girls in South Africa, the spotlight fell on the daunting challenges facing African leaders to educate girls and women. In west and central Africa, female literacy is 38 percent, in contrast to 60 percent for males. By the time girls reach high school, just 20 percent continue their studies, according to a 2007 report by UNICEF.

In her inaugural speech 14 months ago, Liberia President Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf — the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa — vowed to increase female literacy with her National Girls’ Education Policy. The program provides free, compulsory primary schools for every Liberian child, recruits and trains more female teachers, and increases scholarships for girls. “It’s a unique opportunity to chart a new course of education for the girl child and for women,” Johnson-Sirleaf has said.

Indeed, the president knows about the value of education.

She worked her way through college in the United States by mopping floors and waiting tables, before receiving a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard in 1971. She then went on to work at Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations. In Liberia, she was finance minister before making history by winning the 2005 presidential election against soccer star George Weah.

On the streets of Monrovia, Johnson-Sirleaf often stops to speak to children, asking them if they are enrolled in school. Many girls see her as a role model. “I want to be like Ellen” is a common refrain heard here.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s education program appears to be getting results.

Official records show that female enrollment has increased by 24 percent in the past year in contrast to 18 percent for boys. The N.V. Massaquoi School, which is located in the West Point shantytown, now has more than 320 female students. And the majority of Monrovia’s 1,173 schools now have separate bathrooms for girls and boys.

Founded as a republic by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia had been a prosperous and peaceful country for more than a century, bolstered by abundant timber and diamonds. But successive civil wars between 1989 and 2003 killed 250,000 and displaced about half of the nation’s 3 million inhabitants.

Today, Liberia is one of the world’s poorest countries. About 75 percent of the population earns an average of $1 a day; only 32 percent have access to clean drinking water; just 30 percent have latrines, and life expectancy is approximately 42 years, according to the World Health Organization.

West Point is a prime example of such poverty. Located on a peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, its dust-covered streets are dotted with homes of concrete walls and aluminum roofs with no running water or electricity.
Sidewalk merchants serve the community’s 60,000 residents, hawking dried fish and goat meat from wheelbarrows.

Education Minister Joseph Korto says the government is trying to reach West Point and other shantytowns as well as confront cultural impediments that keep girls from attending school.

Many mothers expect their daughters to help them full time with housework chores before leaving to live with their husbands’ families after early marriage. Only 12 percent of girls make it to secondary schools, and just 3,200 of 16,312 students at Monrovia’s University of Liberia are female.

“They are expected to marry by 15, even though that’s against the law,” said the U.N.’s Foster. “Intelligence is never explored … assumptions are that girls won’t go far.”

And then there is the nagging issue of sexual abuse.

Jean-Claude Legrand, UNICEF’s west and central Africa regional child protection adviser, says sex crimes against girls by both male teachers and students are widespread. Korto says some girls even offer sexual favors in exchange for better grades.

“Many of the things we ignored in the past are coming into focus,” he said.

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