Welcome! This blog documents my experience as a Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Cultural Bridge Fellow with the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development during my studies at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed are solely my own and are written to share experiences, introduce issues, and initiate conversation. Thank you for reading!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Personalizing the reality of Liberia's gender statistics

Statistics about the situation of women in Liberia are few. After 14 years of civil conflict, the lack of data is a huge constraint for government and development partners alike. One of the ongoing priorities is to gather data to characterize the population and inform policy, especially as the country moves into the process of drafting its 5-year Poverty Reduction Strategy. Over the past week, I have been working with the Ministry of Gender to review and revise the nation's Gender Profile and Gender Needs Assessment, telling a story with what little information is available. I'm keeping my nerdy fingers crossed that the Demographic and Health Survey data will be out in July, as promised, so that I can do some data crunching to expand upon the data we have now (including violence prevalence rates, perceptions on HIV/AIDs, education attainment and women's health concerns). Below, I have attempted to pass along some of the harsh reality that the current reports contain.

Think of a room of 100 women/girls in your life.

I picture my mom, 2 grandmothers and 7 aunts. 17 girl cousins, my 2 high school best friends (aka sisters), my god-daughter. My 11 college roommates and 15 young women who participated in service trips, retreats and adventures with me at Boston College. My 32 female peers in the 2008 MPA/ID class at the Kennedy School and 4 faculty/staff who have influenced my studies throughout the years. 4 women who were my community in Laredo and 8 mentors from Casa de Misericordia Domestic Violence Shelter.

100 women. Who would be in your room?

Now, imagine that these 100 women live, not in the United States, but in Liberia. What would this mean?*

Women will average six children each and the entire room will mother 620 children. 97 of those babies will die before they reach the age of 5 years old. Pick 61 women who will watch at least one child die before it reached school age. About 25 women will experience this loss more than once. Luckily in my own randomized exercise, my mom was one of the 39 women who never had a child die. 4 of the 97 dead infants belonged to my friend Maggie.

Now select a group of 11 women and a group of 4. 11 women will deliver their children with the assistance of trained medical professionals; 4 women will die giving childbirth. My Granny Stanger, cousin Darci, roommate Regina and classmate Caroline died while giving birth (I’ll ignore the fact that my Granny’s death might have erased the existence of 10% of the room).

Separate nearly two-thirds of the room: 74 women in the room will be illiterate adults – unable to read newspapers, street signs, books or guides to proper health care. As a comparison, if the room were 100 men, half would be illiterate. In my simulation, 7 out of my 32 Kennedy School classmates are able to read and write their names. My Aunt Denise and my Grandma Dauenbaugh no longer share books with each other and my god-daughter will never be able to read her birthday cards.

Now add in a new assumption, the room of women are all from the urban area of Monrovia:
28 work as market vender/petty traders, 5 work in clerical positions, 3 are skilled laborers or work in manufacturing. Overall, 41 women are working and of these 33 are self-employed.

Now assume your network of women comes from rural areas:
65 women have access to land for farming, but only 7 women in the room own land that they farm. In fact, even though the law of inheritance changed in 2003 to grant wives the right to 1/3 of their husbands’ property (previously, they had no rights over his property), 28 women in the room believe that the law does not even allow them to own land. (32 have husbands who believe the same). This is all in spite of the fact that women in Liberia are collectively responsible for 60% of the total agricultural production of the country.

Final scenario, the 100 women in the room were forced to leave their homes or were directly affected by the 14-year civil conflict in Liberia:
Separate just over three-quarters of the room. These 77 women were raped. 13 women became pregnant as a result of rape. In my room it was my Mom, aunt Jodi, cousin Cassie, 4 friends from Boston College, 2 colleagues from Laredo, and 4 of my KSG classmates.
42 women were subjected to internal body cavity searches.
23 women suffer from permanent physical disfigurement
Pick out one woman in the room. My random sampling drew my college roommate Lizzie. She was forced to eat or sell pieces of a loved-one’s body. Imagine her telling you a story similar to one of these:

“The soldiers cut my husband’s head off after he witnessed powerlessly them raping me. After they cut him into pieces, they put the pieces in the pot and asked me to cook it. After cooking, they forced us to eat. I am not the way I was before.”


“My son was killed by a group of rebels and the body was cut into pieces and put into a wheelbarrow. They (rebels) gave it to me for sale. I did it because I was afraid to be cut to death.”

Only six women are free from physical/health consequences from the abuse they were subjected to during the war.*

Photo from a women's group formed to support women affected by the war.

Now imagine if this weren't your imagination. Imagine if this were your reality.

*I completed the following exercise by placing these 100 women in a spreadsheet and using random selection to apply the stats we have. Its not an academic exercise, but it has reflective value. I invite you to think through the exercise yourself. Even after pondering these reports for a few weeks now, sitting down to prepare this entry for the blog has been emotionally jarring.

*These statistics are taken from a World Health Organization survey completed in 2004 to assess the health needs of women who survived violence during the war. 412 women and girls were interviewed; 11.8% of the sample was under the age of 15. For those of you wondering about sample selection, the women for the survey were randomly selected from lists of women that were given to the study team by women leaders in communities and displacement camps. The results cannot be generalized to the entire Liberian population but are generally accepted as being reflective of the experience of women who were affected by the conflict.


Sarah said...

Wow Emily, this is fascinating and so scary at the same time.
Congratulations for your ever-inspiring prose.
Love from DC,
Sarah (Pinto)

Myra said...

Emily, thanks for your post that is both terrifying and eye-opening...I hadn't realized the extent of the suffering experienced by Liberian women during the civil war and its aftermath. Stay strong and good luck with your endeavors at the Ministry! Best, Myra

Yuko said...

Hey Emily,

Sounds like you are having a great time! I don't know the exact stats, but violence against women is a serious issue in Bangladesh as well. We have a housekeeper at our apartment, and she is one of the millions of victims. She got married at 14, had one son, but her husband consistently requested more money from her family and did horrible things to her so she got divorsed. Now she is legally not allowed to get remarried, and her son died from car accident. She just turned 23 last month.

Yet she is such a happy cheerful girl always smiling and cooking miso soup for us (with a funny bangla twist). I just wonder how many of those young girls smiling and walking on the streets had already lost a son and legal right to have a lifetime partner, and gone through horrible violence.

I'm not a great writer like you and Molly, but I have tons of photos... so visit here :)


Sameer said...

Emily, I am sitting in my small cubicle, looking pale and shocked after reading those numbers... Thank you for putting things in perspective.
-Sameer K

Dana said...

Emily, You are so brilliant. What an amazing exercise to really make numbers come alive. It really brought tears to my eyes (especially since I was one of the women!). Thank you, te mando un abrazote! ~Dana

Anonymous said...

Emily, your words are almost impossible to believe! Occasionally a story will appear in the Boston Globe about living conditions in Africa, but your comments are shocking. You are an amazing young woman giving of yourself to help others.

Love from BC Economics,

Anonymous said...


This is a breath taking and personal way to explain such a devestating hardship in Liberia. I am doing a presentation for school, and with you permission, I would like to use the same format to educate the young women I go to school with. Thanks, hcthomp@gmail.com

Lizzy Scully said...

Emily, I would love to chat with you sometime. My name is Lizzy Scully. I am the co-founder of a nonprofit called Girls Education International (www.girlsed.org). We currently operate a scholarship program for 47 girls in Liberia in conjunction with Common Ground Society.
-Lizzy Scully

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Winston said...


Can't explain how your exercise explains it all; the horrible stories these women share, the pains they endured and the trauma they have to live with. I just want to say thanks to you for the job and trying to give visibility to women issues in Liberia.

Winston Daryoue, daryouewinston@yahoo.com
Liberia Women Democracy Radio,

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