‘Pro-poor’ agenda means new houses for ministers
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Monrovia is a city of houses with rustic zinc roofs held down by stones to stop them from flying away during the storms, frequent and fierce during the rainy season. The windows of Rita’s house, a rental shared by many families, are likewise covered with old planks, zinc or rubber sheets. To get there you follow the dusty road busy with pehn pehn taxi motorbikes to a yard where little kids play football, their excited voices filling the air. Rita (45) sits on a rattan chair in front of the house where she and her little ones share one room, braiding her granddaughter’s hair for school the next day.
Looking at the scene one would think of happy kids, and it is indeed Rita’s dream that her grandkids -her three daughters are grown and have moved out- should be happy indeed. But she complains about the eighteen year-old granddaughter, Baby-girl, the bigger sibling of the girl she is preparing for school. Baby-girl is “in a constant habit of going in the street, sleeping with men and does not want to go back to school anymore,” she says. “She’s always dressed half naked at night to attract the men.”
STREAMER: I have beaten her so much that I don’t have strength anymore
Rita has spoken with her, she says. “I have even beaten her so many times to desist from this ugly habit. I have beaten her so much that I don’t have strength anymore. But she won’t stop.” When asked about the girl’s motives, Rita, who has seen much hardship herself as a former soldier in Liberia’s army and civil war for fourteen years, shrugs. “She says it’s for clothes.”
Rita desperately wants all her small ones to finish school so that they can have a better life. But with close to half of the schools in the country lacking teachers, safe water, or even toilets, and the standard of education such that eighty-two percent of pupils can’t pass the set final exams, the question is whether even faithful attendance would help to achieve that. Judging by the out-of-school status of close to forty percent of the country’s teenagers, they doubt that too.
It’s that, or they are just too hungry. At another point in the conversation Rita admits that she can’t feed her kids. “Many days we go without food. Sometimes I buy juice and mix it with ORS (rehydration sachets distributed by NGOs, ed.) and my children and I drink it.” The pension benefit from the army is long gone. Rita used to trade in town but the sales collapsed because she “had to feed (her own family) off the market stall” with the goods and turnover. Often all she had when he came home was enough for some rice and soup, and no profit with which to buy new goods to sell. She now depends on handouts from the occasional good Samaritan and neighbours.
There is no father or grandfather in her family who takes care of the small ones; her “cheated and had a baby outside,” says Rita, explaining why they are separated. She has been in charge of the daughters and grandchildren ever since.
Up in Bomi County Miatta, 28, sleeps with at least three men a day to feed her two sons, whose fathers both have abandoned the children. She charges men according to the way they look. “If the man comes in big car, I can charge him US $ 20,- for an hour, but if the guy is local, I charge him 300 Liberian dollars (US$ 2, ed.)” she says matter of factly. “I can sleep with three men a day but if business goes well, the number can increase to six or seven for that day.” Miatta is a high school drop-out too.
Maybe Miatta -and perhaps even Rita’s granddaughter- could stay in school if the much-advertised Pro-Poor Agenda of the new government, under ex-footballer, now President, George Weah, would come into being. The promises on paper, as always, look exciting. A focus on girls, it says, and school meals, and better sanitation, and smaller classes and better-trained teachers as well. And that is only the schools part of the programme. The health part emphasises proper medicines availability in ninety percent of clinics, something the population, largely dependent on dangerous counterfeit or expired drugs, -if any at all, because no clinic ever has any real medicines to give-, can only dream of. The general part talks of cash transfers to families like Miatta’s and Rita’s.
Liberians, who still generally live on less than a dollar per day, have not seen any of it yet. It may be early days, since the new government only came into being on January 2018, but what citizens have observed so far doesn’t inspire confidence. New leaders have, immediately after being elected, started building fancy houses for themselves; 500 million Liberian dollars (US$ 3 million) has disappeared in a newly printed banknotes scandal; and progressives in the new ruling party are reportedly being sidelined.
Despondency about government is joined by an overwhelming lack of expectation when it comes to the male part of the population. Is it the civil war that turned the men so uncaring? Nineteen out of thirty interviewed women said they were single or divorced and struggling alone. Most had not experienced the fathers of their children helping out at all, nor did they expect them to ever do so. Of the eleven who reported having a male partner only three said a husband, father of their children or boyfriend contributed to the household. One of the most caring men reported in the interviewing exercise was a son who brought money home from ‘criminality.’
One of the reasons Rita is so unhappy with her granddaughter’s behaviour is precisely the men. “There are lots of older men who are abusing these teenagers. They are married but they are still chasing these little girls because of the country’s (miserable) status,” she says referring to the fact that the men have easy pickings from the many young girls in the streets. She is worried about Aids, too, and wants to protect the girl. This is why she beats Baby-girl: she simply doesn’t know what else to do. “Still she won’t listen. She always says my life is over and she has to go out with friends.”
Traditional rules also still oppress. Musu, only 18, was chucked out into the streets of Tubmanburg in Bomi County, when her father died two years ago in a motor accident. Her late father’s family people claimed her house because, as a woman, she can’t inherit property. Her two children were taken in by the in laws, but she had to move out into the street and now sells oranges in Tubmanburg.
As we chat, a group of girls play kick ball (a local game similar to baseball) whilst fighting off a group of little boys, trying to hijack the ball. But they are not getting far: the girls, determined to finish their off the game, don’t give them an inch.
Musu’s oranges, 25 Liberian dollars apiece, are not a booming business. She has not sold even one today. But it’s better than working for the ‘friend’ who, after finding her alone and homeless, started pimping her to other men. It was to be expected, in a way: according to estimates by community workers, seventy-five percent of women with children in this region are single mothers and a large number of them have no choice but to become sex workers.
STREAMER “What if I get sick because I sleep around for a man’s benefit?”
But Musu couldn’t handle it. “That boy (the pimp, ed.) was helping me but he wanted me to bring money to support him. I started asking myself what if I get sick because of this man encouraging me to sleep around for his benefit? So I left that life.” Musu, too, would like to go back to school, and hopes for help from the government.
A programme run in 2017 by the Liberian Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection in cooperation with development partners, -mainly an NGO called ‘Street Child’ in the UK-, reached two thousand teenage girls who battle with poverty and physical hardship, rape and sexual exploitation. Dealing only with a small percentage of Liberia’s estimated few hundred thousand teenage girls and young women in similar situations to begin with, the programme was shut down abruptly when the new Weah government took over. The new incumbent belonged to the party that had previously been the opposition and had no interest in continuing something done by predecessors. “They were not even interested in seeing the records,” said former minister Julia Duncan-Cassell in an interview.
Starting a business
In Paynesville, fourteen kilometers east of Monrovia, Sarah (28) sells used clothes now. Sitting at a big wooden market table with clothes hanging from hangers, she packs a few for her brothers to go around and sell them cheap. She explains that it will do: the profit is low but they get quick money. “I have slept with men for money before and my family was aware of it,” she says with a shrug. “It’s not a real job, though. You don’t really want to do that, but when things are not going well with you, we just find ourselves getting two or three ‘boyfriends’ because we want money from them.”
Sarah does not say where she got the money to start her business, but she does say generally that “when a girl sleeps with a man for money, she should take that money and turn it around and do business to make her own money. So that she won’t have to ever sleep with a man for money again.”
Sarah, too, would like to go back to school. But until that opportunity comes, she’ll herself, like Rita, Miatta, Musu and all the others, will continue to survive with their children, holding on through whatever storms, war and ebola, come rain or high water, like the zinc roofs, planks and rubber sheets of the houses of Monrovia.