Sunday, October 10, 2010
Liberian Women Find Their Voice
Situated down a bumpy, dirt track on the edge of the capital, Monrovia, the Liberia Women Democracy Radio (LWDR), claims it wants to advance women and promote change. In a country trying to rebuild itself after 14 years of civil war in which women bore the brunt of the violence, they remain the most vulnerable group in society.
"Before the radio station, we couldn’t get our voices heard. The big people wouldn’t take our problems seriously," says Deborah Reeves, a mother of four in Monrovia. "Now they hear them over and over."
The 30 year old lives on Pagos Island, a stretch of land surrounded by swamps completely cut off from the rest of the city. On an island without electricity, public schools, a police station and not one health centre, the four thousand inhabitants struggle to even make a living.
"I’ve seen things on this island that aren’t right in a civilised world," exclaims Reeves as she shelters in the community church with around forty other women.
"We’re a forgotten community, just fending for ourselves.No one sees us. It’s like we’re not even here."
Reeves has brought people from the community together to talk about how they, as women, can use the radio station to tell their stories in an attempt to get authorities to act. As they sit in the stifling heat, some with their babies strapped to their backs, others with a small child at their knees, slowly, one by one, they get the courage to stand up to tell their story.
One speaker, more a teenager than a woman, describes how she started walking to the nearest clinic when she felt her first contraction. It was dark, she was on her own and she had a two to three hour trek ahead of her. She ended up giving birth on the way.
As she stands in front of the women, with passion and sadness in her eyes, she explains how she tried to get the baby to take its first breath.She had no idea how to do it, so she lay there on the road as the baby died in her arms.
"I didn’t want to talk today," she says. "But this is just disgracing women."
This story is just one of thousands.
"In the rural areas, women are not heard," says Lady Mai Hunter, as she looks over her microphone in the production studio at LWDR. These are the hard to reach groups the station wants to broadcast to. Funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) and facilitated by the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), LWDR broadcasts to eight of Liberia’s fifteen counties. Their aim is to increase their transmitter power and reach out to women all over the country.
At 22 years old and already a young mother herself, Hunter knows all too well the struggles women in Liberia still face. "We have a female President and outside of Liberia people think that everything is okay for women here, but it’s not. Sexual exploitation, rape and wife battering are all big problems here."
In 2006, Liberia voted in Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. While this in itself is a great inspiration for women all over the country, female voices are still rare in high level discussions on peace and security. For President Sirleaf, LWDR is a way to get those often forgotten voices aired.
"I’m extremely pleased and I understand we’re the second women’s radio station on the continent and that again pleases us in that we’ve broken ground in this regard," says Sirleaf she.
However, the president is aware of the challenges Liberian women face. "We still have some serious problems in Liberia; serious problems regarding rape, regarding the retention of girls in school. I hope through this station they will be able to focus on these problems."
Rape is the number one reported crime in Liberia and children are often the victims. A recent survey of rape survivors in Monrovia found three out of eight were under the age of twelve, while one in ten was under five. But issues like rape, teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation and prostitution are rarely, if ever, talked about on other stations across the country.
The media, run almost exclusively by men, seldom touch on these subjects, preferring to pontificate about politics and policy making. With the next elections in October 2011, LWDR is calling for women to start playing a crucial role in shaping their country’s future.
And so far, the Liberia Women Democracy Radio station is providing a glimmer of hope for women like Deborah Reeves. "LWDR is an eye opener for us. To be frank, women face such terrible conditions in this country and their voices are never heard. Now, if I’m hurt, I can use the radio to tell my story and reach authorities who can help us."
Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.