“My whole life I never spoke English. Now, at my age, I can write my name and I know my ABCs and 123s,” said an elderly woman at a gathering with UN Women delegates from New York held in Bopolu, a town tucked away in Liberia's northern Gharpolu County.
She was joined by around 150 women, each wearing unique dresses to represent their villages, some whom had trekked up to two hours for the occasion. They sang a welcome song and shared stories on how they have benefited from training under a UN Women project geared to empower them economically.
With support from UN Women, since 2012, around 600 women in Gharpolu County have been trained in literacy, entrepreneurship, leadership and other related economic skills with an ultimate aim to enhance their sense of physical security in public and private spaces. Implemented by the NGO Educare and supported by the European Union, the project is part of a larger programme that seeks to increase the participation of women in post-conflict planning and peacebuilding.
Liberia emerged from over a decade of civil war in 2003 with much of its infrastructure and social fabric in tatters. Women and girls were particularly affected by the conflict, suffering extreme hardship and high incidence of conflict-driven sexual violence. In post-conflict countries, such as Liberia, improved economic and physical security often lends itself to increased participation of women in politics, peacebuilding efforts and post-conflict recovery.
Women's businesses are also taking off thanks to a village savings and loan programme, in which the women pool their resources, by making a small payment on a monthly basis and then individually borrow from the funds on a rotating basis, like a revolving credit.
An impressive display of preserved peppers and seasonings for sale in Bopolu illustrates the fruits of their entrepreneurship.
“Now the men are running to us to ask us what we want, since we have our own money and our own security,” a young woman from one of the outlying villages added. It's not just about economics, though. The trainings have enabled the women to form a special bond and support network with each other, especially during challenging times.
They shared an experience of rallying around a woman who was about to be left destitute after her husband decided to leave her and their children for another woman, without providing for their financial security. Getting wind of his plan, the women gathered together and barricaded him in his house, forcing him to leave money for his wife and children. The man relented and left the village in disgrace. With this intervention, his wife was able to continue to send her children to school and could ensure their economic and physical security.
For women in post-conflict contexts like Liberia, physical and economic security go hand-in-hand. If women and girls are self-sufficient, they are more able to walk away from abusive situations. As the women of Bopolu can attest, boosting their income and increasing their solidarity is already yielding peace dividends for the entire community.