Fifteen-year-old Regina Brown sketches a bleak picture of what her life could have been like.
“I have many friends my age who now have multiple babies. I have many friends who are forced to the street to sell their own bodies on a regular basis because they do not have enough money they feel that sex work is their only option,” says Brown, a petite girl with elfin features, to a crowd of donors and members of her community.
The child of a water seller and a security guard from Kru Beach, a borough of Liberia’s sprawling capital of Monrovia, Brown grew up in a zinc shack with three other siblings. Her parents could not afford to send any of them to school—but Brown was lucky enough to receive a scholarship from a foundation called More Than Me, which aims to help underprivileged girls escape a life of forced labor and sexual exploitation on the streets.
Liberia’s education system made international headlines last month when 25,000 students reportedly failed the University of Liberia’s entrance exam. The nation’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, used her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to highlight the fact that “access to quality education is the social justice issue of our time.” This year, Johnson Sirleaf has repeatedly described the country’s education system as “a mess.” But a group of Americans, who have set up an independent school in one of Monrovia’s poorest slums, are attempting to create a model of success in a nation where the education system is still broken after more than a decade of civil war.
Katie Meyler, a New Jersey native and the founder of More Than Me, first came to Liberia seven years ago with the evangelical non-governmental organization Samaritan’s Purse. During her time in the capital, she began wandering around the slum of West Point—a sprawling patchwork of zinc roofs lodged in a stretch of sand and home to 60,000 people. Its residents include West African immigrants, those displaced by Liberia’s 14-year war, and young children, sent by their parents from poor rural communities to the big city to live with friends or relatives and earn a living.
When Meyler asked kids in West Point what they would do if given the chance to do anything they wanted, their answer was simple: they wanted to go to school.
In 2009, Meyler and West Point community leader MacIntosh Johnson teamed up to launch More Than Me. In their first year, they raised funds for school fees and materials for 30 girls who were either involved in or vulnerable to sexual exploitation and forced labor. In 2012, the group entered the Chase Community Giving Contest, in which NGOs compete for enough votes to win a million-dollar grant. Meyler launched a social media campaign around the story of Abigail, one of the students helped by More Than Me. Now 15, Abigail wrote a letter detailing her experiences as an orphan growing up with prostitutes in West Point. Abigail eventually had to prostitute herself for money and necessities. As part of the campaign, Meyler called on people to write 'I Am Abigail' on their foreheads and post their photographs on Facebook and like the More Than Me page.
So many people took up the call that More Than Me ended up winning the prize money, and using it to renovate a war-beaten building donated by the government. They also hired six teaching fellows to work with Liberian teachers in the classrooms. The new school will officially open its doors next week to an inaugural class of 108 girls, ranging in age from 5 to 17, and has the capacity for 240 kids. None of the girls have an educational level above third grade.
Without the opportunity to go to school, the future is dire for most girls in Kru Beach, which is one of West Point’s poorest and roughest communities. “I saw a lot of child prostitution and a lot of girls that were not educated or going to school and a lot of girls who weren’t with their biological parents, who are being used as slaves,” said Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood.
Johnson introduced me to a girl who has fallen in between Liberia’s cracks. Olivia (not her real name) does not know where her parents are and has been raised by a cast of strangers. Her face is small and delicate; her hair is feathered. Her bra is stuffed and propped up on her tiny ribcage, conspicuous under a pastel pink t-shirt with Cheer YMCA written on it in white. Her small nails are coated with chipped black polish. She sits with me in her tiny room, opposite the thin, soggy foam mattress she shares with three other women.
Olivia hangs around bars and video clubs at night, waiting to ‘cut jopu,’ or barter her body for food or a small amount of money. The culture of transactional sex is a sad legacy of the war, says Rosanna Shaack, the director of Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness, another organization that runs a school for girls who have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Young girls became the ‘girlfriends’ of generals and soldiers, she said, to secure access to food and other material goods.
Olivia tells me how she has been surviving since age 12. “Have sex with men. They give you money to eat. Sometimes I put up with somebody on the road, they carry me to their house and I sleep, and day break and I move from there.
I ask her how many girls like her are in West Point. “We are plenty.”
A week before I met her, Olivia buried her first child, whose father was a customer. The child had only survived for a few days before it developed a fever. Olivia was unable to afford treatment at a local clinic, and the child died.
Even if they do manage to avoid the streets, girls face greater challenges in pursuing an education in Liberia. Families prioritize boys’ education—only 44 percent of the country’s primary school students are girls, compared to 55.6 percent of boys. The divide widens in secondary school, where 37.4 percent of the student body is female and 62.6 percent is male. Sexual harassment, abuse and sex for grades are also major problems in Liberian schools.
In 2006, the Ministry of Education launched a Girls Education Policy, which sought to address some of these issues through training more female teachers and creating mechanisms through which abusive teachers could be held accountable. But the policy largely remains a piece of paperwork. A new policy document that has been fleshed out and further developed will be launched at the end of the month.
Despite the fact that primary education is free and compulsory, students often pay additional fees, not including the cost of uniforms and copybooks. According to UNESCO figures from 2011, 59 percent of Liberian children who are of primary-school age are out of school. The standard of teaching in schools is also greatly lacking.
“We have many teachers who are in classrooms who are not qualified to teach, who themselves have barely passed secondary school, if they have passed secondary school,” says Sheldon Yett, the country representative of the United Nations Children's Fund.
In the midst of systemic dysfunction, the More Than Me Academy hopes to be a model for both students and other schools alike. Painted a perfect white, the neat rooms dressed in bright colors and filled with little wooden desks, the academy stands down the road from the College of West Africa, an expensive private school that has been alma mater to many of Liberia’s political luminaries—among them, the president herself.
The academy will be using the U.S. Common Core Curriculum and adapting it for a Liberian context, with an emphasis on Liberian history. Unlike most schools, which run from 8am-1pm, the school will operate between 8 and 5pm, to ensure that girls will not be out on the streets selling goods or bartering their bodies in the afternoon. The girls will also be taught about reproductive health.
While Meyler and her team are hopeful, they are also aware that many challenges lie ahead. Maritza Montilla, the academy’s principal, is a New Yorker who spent eight years teaching in the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the United States. She says the challenges are similar: kids of different ages within the same class, kids who have difficult lives at home and are expected to be breadwinners. But in New York, a city that, like Monrovia, is plagued by social and economic divisions, you can find good schools in poor communities.
“Even in my school where I worked in the Bronx, it was a failing school, but if I wanted to see a model of what a good school was with my same population I could go to a charter school,” says Montilla. “Here I’m finding that there is no model of an excellent school that serves the girls of our population: girls from the slum who do not have very much education. We are pretty much developing a school without great models to follow.”
The long-term goal of the project is to the get the girls up to an international standard so they could pursue their college education anywhere in the world. But for now, Montilla and the team of teaching fellows will be working hard to get the incoming students two grade levels ahead of where they are currently.
Meyler says while she is uncertain about the future is confident about the level of support from the government, the local communities and their donors.
“These kids are so driven,” says Meyler. “We have such great support behind us.”