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Women take the lead

Liberia, August 27, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Ruth Allen  </span>
    Photo: Ruth Allen

As long as I can remember, there’s been a world map hanging in my grandmother’s kitchen.

When I called to let her know I was off to Liberia soon, she was quiet for a minute and then yelped when she found the small west African country — just about the size of Tennessee — located between Cote d’Ivorie, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Over the coming few weeks we both learned a lot more about Liberia.

Crisscrossing the country to interview Liberians about issues important in their communities, it wasn’t surprising to hear food security as a recurring concern. Liberia is still emerging from decades of political turmoil and outright civil war, which decimated the country’s agriculture industry and killed or displaced a third of the population.

At a food security conference last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used an experience in Liberia to illustrate the severity and scale of the global food crisis. “The poorest of the poor spend two-thirds or more of their income on food. They will be the hardest hit. I have seen this for myself. In Liberia recently, I met people who normally would buy rice by the bag. Today, they buy it by the cup.”

But as I saw, it’s not just the UN and groups like Mercy Corps, farmers, or the government who are working on improving food security in Liberia. Some of the most creative and effective efforts are by local women’s organizations.

In the village of Bopolu, a community-based women’s organization identified the biggest threat to their community’s development as “the hungry season” — the difficult months between the time when the rice stocks run out and the next harvest.

In just a year since forming, the group adapted a traditional savings and loan model to generate funds for several members to attend training about methods to improve crop yields, negotiated with the district commissioner for land, and solicited community donations from their personal stores of seeds. As a result, the chairwoman said, “this year has been good and women who are not even members watch us and are inspired to use the new method.”

Meanwhile back in the U.S., Grandma was learning all about Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa. “She’s quite a woman! I saw her on Larry King talking about how women helped lead the peace movement.”

Indeed she was right. Liberia is an exceptional case of women organizing for peaceful change. Groups like the Women In Peace Network (WIPNET-Liberia) are now mobilizing those same women who rallied to end the civil war to tackle Liberia’s long-term development issues. Program Coordinator Lindora Diawara summed up WIPNET’s new motivation by recalling what she hears all the time from network members: “We volunteered for peace and held the placards, but even now we can not read those same placards. We need to know [literacy] so we can make a living and feed our families.” Adult women’s literacy and food security are now top priorities for WIPNET.

When I returned home and told Grandma this story she said, “Well that’s smart. Mercy Corps should really listen to those women!”