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  • Writer's pictureMargo Rees

A Missed opportunity?

In Liberia, due to extensive poverty and deprivation, many families are unable to afford school fees for uniforms and books for all of their children. Typically, they continue to pay for the boys, but will take the girls out of school to save money. Often, they feel it would be better for some of their children to work and bring in money, rather than having them attend school and thereby “consume” money that could be used for provision.

Another common way for a family to be “relieved” of the financial strain of supporting their daughters is to offer them in forced/early marriage to a man. Sometimes the man will even offer a sum of money or resources for the girl. Likewise, when a girl is sent to “work” instead of school, and expected to bring in an income, how she procures that income is often of little concern to her parents, as long as she brings it home. This makes young women extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking, as it is harder for an uneducated woman to obtain regular work.

Sadly, even this sense of self-worth and ambition can be exploited.

Knowing all of this, it is a supreme victory for a girl if she can manage to stay in school. Most girls really want to finish school and chase their dreams, and they want to make their families proud. Sadly, even this sense of self-worth and ambition can be exploited. When girls begin to develop and enter their teenage years, they often fall prey to the sexual coercion and extortion common among older male authority figures such as uncles, teachers, village elders, and religious leaders. Some such men will freely assault girls under their authority, knowing the girls will not report it for fear of losing their place in school.

In other cases, however, a man in authority will “proposition” a young girl with the offer of helping her to stay in school, paying her fees, or offering her extra money for her family if she will “agree” to have a sexual relationship with him. Trapped and scared at the prospect of losing her place in school, a girl in this position will often feel she has no choice. She is usually afraid to tell anyone for fear of the social stigma. Typically, the man is a person with social influence and will threaten to have the girl expelled from school if she says no.

I was eager to address this type of sexual abuse and coercion when I visited schools throughout Liberia last winter. I spoke to the girls about saying “no” even to men who were perceived to be authority figures, and about how to report sexual harassment and assault. We also spoke to them about standing up for each other and supporting one another under such circumstances. I felt very hopeful about the reactions we got, and the gratitude from the teachers for what we were doing just by being willing to address such topics.

But near the end of our travels, I was giving this talk in a school in Bong County and a young girl bravely raised her hand. She stood up and said, “Yes, but what can you do if a man approaches you like that, and you tell someone you trust about it, and she says to you, ‘You don’t want to miss your opportunity.’?” My jaw dropped. I realized the purport of this girl’s question: that an aunt, mother, or female friend could interpret sexual extortion and threats as a financial or social “opportunity” for a 13 year old girl, and tell her to take it. That we were not just fighting against single predators. But against an entire social construct that would subjugate and devalue girls from childhood forward. I looked at my Liberian co-leader Viola, and she took over – speaking to the girls about the importance of continuing to report such a person until action is taken, and promising to help girls have their voice heard.

... that an aunt, mother, or female friend could interpret sexual extortion and threats as a financial or social “opportunity” for a 13 year old girl, and tell her to take it.

Later Viola told me, “This is very common here. Even a girl’s own mother may tell her daughter that. This is why we want to have a place for these girls – so they have somewhere to go where they can grow and learn in peace and safety. So they can be taught from the beginning that they have value and purpose.” My heart was broken thinking that sexual extortion could ever be called an “opportunity” for anyone.

We want girls to have access to real opportunities!

Please continue to support us as we begin construction of Lydia House – so that young women can grow up believing in their worth and having a choice to fulfill their true purpose.

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