NoVo in the Media

Women Have the Power

19 February 2011
BY Jennifer Buffett

Jennifer Buffett talks to a social worker in Liberia who is working to change society’s perception of girls.

Photo: Jennifer Buffett and Marian Rogers

It is a simple idea, and a bold one: Women and girls have the power to lead their countries away from war to peace and prosperity. But only if we stop the violence that is holding them back.

In 2007, NoVo Foundation and the International Rescue Committee put this idea into practice with the Women & Girls Rebuilding Nations project. This five-year, $17 million initiative has already reached hundreds of thousands of people across West Africa and is fundamentally changing the way that governments, the international community and the humanitarian field work with women and girls. And not a moment too soon: In 2012, 400,000 girls will turn 12 across West Africa. This is a critical moment in their lives, and together NoVo and the IRC are laying the groundwork that will help them build a safe and prosperous future for themselves and their nations.

This January, Jennifer Buffett traveled to West Africa to visit the project in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  In Monrovia, Liberia, she sat down to talk with Marian Rogers, an IRC social worker who works with some of Liberia’s most vulnerable girls.

In person, these girls are as audacious and bold as the premise of Women & Girls Rebuilding Nations. They speak enthusiastically of a future Liberia where they will be doctors, lawyers and even president.With the support of leaders like NoVo Foundation — and the hard work of women like Marian — that future is within their reach.

Marian Rogers: My name is Marian Rogers. I’m a 33-year-old Liberian, married with three children—two girls, age 8 and 23 months, and a boy, age 10.

Jennifer Buffett: Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and a little bit about your background? What led you to this position at the IRC?

MR: I’m the first of six children from my father and the last of two children from my mother. My father and my stepmother died in a tragic motorcar accident, leaving me alone with my brothers and sisters. I was just 21 at the time. Being the eldest, I had to care for them and it was really difficult for me as a girl. I went through everything girls go through today. What really helped is that my young siblings determined my focus. I knew I could make a difference. I told myself, “I should try to do everything I can to help girls so that they don’t experience what I have experienced and so they may be free from everything bad that affects women and girls.

That’s how I got interested in the field of social work. And then I went to the College of Health Services in Liberia to do an associate program in social work. I studied basic social work skills for four months. After that I got the job with the International Rescue Committee. And then I went back and did the associate program and graduated and now I’m doing advanced courses to be able to obtain a B.S. degree in social work.

JB: Can you tell us a little bit about your job at the IRC? What is your position, and what does your job entail?

Photo: Girls in the Caring Sisters programMR: I started with the IRC in 2003 during the emergency period, at which time we had IDPs [internally displaced persons] all in the different camps and I was employed as a social worker in one of the camps.

I started working there with women, helping them to know their rights, teaching them life skills, and giving them some basic facts about GBV, gender-based violence. After a year, I was elevated to Senior Social Worker, and then to Senior Program Officer for Community Development. Now my job is to ensure that trainings are planned and implemented, and to work with the various groups that we have established: the men’s group, the women’s group, the gender clubs and that of the girls. My boss thought that my focus should be with the girls and I think it’s because I have compassion with children, especially girls.

JB: The girls in Caring Sisters [an IRC girls’ group that Marian works with] are 10 to 12 to 14 years old. Why is it very important to work with that age group? Because that’s really young … to be talking to 10 year olds about gender-based violence. But what have you seen that tells you that that’s a really important age group to be working with?

MR: It’s very important to be working with that age group from 10 to 14 because we are talking about prevention. So if we want to make sure GBV doesn’t happen, we have to start working with girls at a young age so that they can have the knowledge and the technical know-how to prevent it from happening to them. Reaching them when they are still young is very important. It will help that girl to free herself from teenage pregnancy. It will help that girl to understand that she has a value. It will help that girl to understand that yes indeed she can prevent any form of gender-based violence from happening to her. So working with her is really important.

JB: What should people know about Liberia that they may not know?

MR: I want the world to know that Liberians are very friendly and receptive.

JB: I’d say resilient too.

MR: Yeah, that’s part of the war. That’s part of all of the different problems. Very low economic status, unemployment, poverty and most importantly a lot of gender-based violence issues. Yet Liberians are still resilient and hopeful. Liberians are able to cope with any life situation. That’s one thing I love about Liberia. And then Liberia has undergone tremendous changes with this present government, led by Mama Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

JB: What kind of difference do you think it makes that there’s a woman president in Liberia?

Caring SistersMR: Yes! It makes a lot of difference. Before there were issues that were affecting women and girls that men’s leadership did not take into consideration. Let’s look at rape. Rape is one issue that was not considered important, when it happened before this woman’s government. They never had laws to ensure that perpetrators were punished. But then we rebuilt, and we established a special court to try rape cases. And then, most importantly, [President Sirleaf] is really highlighting girls’ education. You see that from the number of girls that we have in school now, not only in elementary school anymore. We even see girls in colleges, in universities. So that shows that a woman’s leadership is actually okay for women and girls, not only for men.

Yes, she is a role model for Africa.

JB: She is. For the world.

MR: For the world, for Africa. She has inspired a lot of women. Even women who did not go to school are now involved with some adult literacy to build and empower themselves. They understand now that, yes indeed, a woman does just what a man can do. That has helped even the little girls. Most of them are saying, “I want to be like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”

And then if you look at our own infrastructure, roads, reconstruction and constructions, you find the president building schools! The government is trying to ensure that they have a lot of private and public schools, even universities, the cleanest hospitals. So we are so happy.

We all see the changes over the last four years and we are all a part of it.

JB: So can you talk a little bit more specifically about your work with the Caring Sisters and about them and the program and what happens there? I got a little taste of it and loved meeting them. They were so poised and smart and just dynamic and powerful.

MR: Oh the Caring Sisters. They are so wonderful. I love them.

Caring Sisters is a name that they chose themselves. So I asked them, “Why are you calling yourselves Caring Sisters?” “We are calling ourselves Caring Sisters because if someone feels bad, the group feels bad. If someone around us, even if not part of the group, feels bad, we also feel bad.” And that was how the group became Caring Sisters.

We work with girls while they are still young. What we do within Caring Sisters is teach a lot of life skills. We want the girls to understand their own self-value. We want them to know that they are as important as boys. We want them to understand that no one has the right to take advantage of them because of their sex.

We also teach them reproductive health. We teach them about the basic concepts of gender-based violence, we tell them about teenage pregnancy and the effects it has on the family, the individual—the girl herself—and the society. So those are things that the children did not know, especially because of our own culture in Liberia. Before now, you could not discuss sex with children. You could not talk about those issues. So because they were blind to those issues, they found themselves involved in those issues. They did not know they were ignorant. And because people who knew better took advantage of them, they were just left along the wayside.

But now that they are learning, after five years, the girls will become girls with high self-value. Girls who respect themselves and girls who will be focused.

JB: When you talk to a girl about her value and the fact that she has value and she has rights, what’s her initial reaction? Does she believe it right away?

MR: No, it’s a process. She doesn’t believe it right away. She has grown from birth knowing that parents have the rights over every child. Whether that child has her own choice to make or her own decision, the parents have the right. So telling a girl that indeed she has the right, it takes time and as you continue to explain why you are talking about rights, you also tell them about the responsibility of a child.

Every right goes with responsibility. And you’re also making them understand that ‘I have rights’ does not mean I should violate another person’s rights.

So we try to educate them little by little and that child starts to understand that yes indeed she has rights, she has her own decision to make, she can be cared for by her parents too but she should be assertive, to say what she has on her mind and the parents can help to guide her in the process.

JB: Can you talk a little bit about boys and men? There are a lot of challenges obviously because it’s not just about empowering girls and making girls see their value, but teaching boys and men whole new ways of being in relation to girls and women. Can you just speak a little bit about that?

MR: The reason why a whole involvement component is necessary is because the people who usually do these things are male. So if you leave them out of the whole intervention, then you have done nothing.

We have gender clubs in schools where we consider the issues of gender sensitivity. It means that 15 or 20 girls, 15 or 20 boys, are being taught how to work side by side. It means that boys are being taught to understand that girls have the same human rights as they have.

And we want them to see themselves not as perpetrators but as agents of change. They can serve as a role model for a lot of men and boys. So if we can work with boys and work with men, I feel gender-based violence will be the next step in the process. In the years to come, a lot of men will understand the role, the importance of gender sensitivity, the importance of gender equality, the importance of knowing that indeed a woman can do whatever a man can do and the importance of sharing roles and responsibilities. Not just saying, “Oh look, this is what society thinks about me as a man so I should do it.” But to understand that the woman has feelings and a girl has rights and acknowledge those rights.

JB: That’s an uphill battle but it’s one that I believe can be won. I believe this is the issue of our time, so if we can get this right, we can change the world in a positive way. If you had one or two things that you would offer as advice from all your wisdom and all your learning and your life doing this work, what would you say to other people who want to learn from you?

MR: One thing I will say: let us all understand the rights of women and girls. That’s very important in everything we do, because that girl’s face brings a smile to a nation. That girl’s hands increase the growth of every community. So if we all try to protect the rights of women and girls and especially promote and empower them, the world will be a better place, free from violence.

Photos by Peter Biro/The IRC.