By Jenny Hobbs
When a girl starts school in Liberia, she arrives full of enthusiasm and hope. Squeezing onto a bench with children her age—under a corrugated roof, in a make-shift building—she looks to her teacher ready to learn. But, without books to read from, a desk to lean on or a pencil to hold, progress is slow. Her teacher is an untrained, unqualified, unpaid volunteer. He struggles to control the overcrowded class and yearns for a curriculum to follow, textbooks to use or a decent blackboard to write on.
|Children form orderly line ahead of entering school for morning class.||Ph||oto: Ester Havens, Concern Worldwide|
Concern Liberia is working to address these issues in 30 remote schools in Grand Bassa County. Constructing classrooms, separate toilets for boys and girls and providing furniture is just the start. Textbooks and other essential learning items like blackboards, pencils and copybooks are also being distributed.
To address the shortage of trained teachers available, Concern has posted Teacher Trainers in several rural communities across Grand Bassa to provide on-the-job training and support for primary school teachers. Bolstered by textbooks, tutoring and courses in teaching methodology, literacy and numeracy, such education programs can effectively bridge the gaps in their own education.
Ida Hughes volunteered to become a teaching assistant when she heard about the education program. Her eight children (5 boys and 3 girls) attend a primary school in the rural community of Fortsville. Ida never had the opportunity to complete her own education and knows plenty about the consequences. She puts her children through school with meager earnings from rice production and charcoal, which she makes from chopped wood.
Ida explains how she was forced to abandon her education: “At grade seven my foster parents stopped sponsoring me in school. They told me that they were not in a position to support another person’s child to complete high school.”
Not long ago, Ida joined the program as a teaching assistant. Today she supports teachers in the classroom, and attends basic courses to improve her own academic skills. She has high hopes to passthe Liberian national examinations and is determined to realize her dream to enroll in a teacher training college.
Liberia is still recovering from a brutal 14-year civil war that destroyed lives, schools and homes. Providing education opportunities for young girls and boys is essential to securing the country’s economic recovery and to affording Liberia the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty. Children need safe learning environments, free from corporal punishment and sexual exploitation and abuse—especially girls. In 2008, the failed system had an abysmally low net enrolment rate of just 33 percent for primary school: that’s 67 percent of primary school aged children out of school.
When I visited Tepenneh last week, I was reminded about the vital importance providing safe learning spaces for girls. The old school building, a makeshift one-room structure made out of mud and stone is on the verge of collapse. Accompanied by a crowd of giggling children, I visited the site where we are building a new school with six classrooms, equipped with separate toilets for boys and girls. The importance of doing this can’t be overestimated. Girls are placed in danger of sexual assault when they have no safe toilets and have to share toilets with boys and men, or when they have to leave the school grounds to use the bush. Rape and sexual violence is a serious problem in post-conflict Liberia and we must make primary schools as safe as possible so children can learn free from danger of assault. The Tepenneh community will rejoice when the new school building becomes officially theirs come April!
Girls’ education is hampered by the common belief in Liberia that girls are less intelligent than boys—a falsehood most devastatingly apparent in the lack of support demonstrated by parents. Unfortunately in Liberia, a girl’s education pays few tangible dividends and she ultimately becomes the ‘property’ of the family into which she marries. In addition, gender-`based violence and sexual exploitation by male teachers and fellow classmates severely limit enrolment and retention. When I reflect on the privileged way I grew up and got an education, I am saddened at the plight of girls’ here. I am grateful to make a difference, however modest, each day that I’m on the ground here.
My colleagues and I are working hard to encourage parents to send their children to school, especially girls. More importantly, communities must be educated about their children’s rights and become aware of the importance of gender equality. Parents and children are learning about the newly-introduced Liberian Code of Conduct for Teachers. Community members have translated the code into Liberian English so that parents and children can understand it better. One rule simply said “Teachers must not make love to students or impregnate students.” Now parents can report abuses in confidence to ensure their children are protected while at school.
Together with the Ministry of Education, Concern is working in rural schools to ensure that every girl has a brighter future, so she can “be someone tomorrow”.
Jenny Hobbs joined Concern in Liberia as Education Program Coordinator in 2009. She previously worked as a primary school teacher in Ireland before training teachers in The Gambia and Ethiopia. Jenny is based in Buchannan City, close to Concern’s rural school communities.