Forgotten Voices: The Harsh Reality of Children in Liberia

Flashback: Poverty in Liberia makes it common to see children who are supposed to be in school selling on the street.

..... ….Today, as Liberia joins other nations around the world in marking the International Day of the African Child (DAC), the extent of the problem can be seen in the statistics.

The sun had barely risen over the horizon when the sound of feet shuffling and pots clanking echoed through the alleys of Monrovia. 

It is a new day, and for hundreds of children in Liberia,  many of whom are homeless and live on the street, it meant another arduous search for food.  

“We are heading into a crisis that when we are not careful as a nation none of us will live in peace,” said Ne-Suah Livingstone, the head of Rescued and Abandoned Children in Hardship (REACH). 

The crisis Livingstone is talking about is the 366,584 street children of Liberia who are scattered across the country, according to the latest data from the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection.   The data revealed that 17%of street children between the age of 5 to 14,  in Liberia work in agriculture,  while a similar amount in services, and about 4% in industries. 

The lives of these children, the Ministry says,are neither positive nor sustainable as they are unable to meet their basics, which makes them susceptible to violence,  trafficking and sexual exploitation as well as drugs.

“A survey conducted by the Ministry and partners discovered that over 366,584 children across the country are living in the streets in dehumanizing conditions,” says Maminah Gorlon Carr-Gay, the Assistant Gender Minister for Children and Social Protection on June 12 at a program World Day against Child Labor at the Ministerial Complex in Congo Town.

“Child labor has been one of the major problems the Government of Liberia has tackled, adding that children who should be in school are rather forced to labor for their families.”

Liberia's protracted civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003, left an indelible mark on the nation, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that disproportionately affects its children. 

The conflict resulted in widespread displacement, loss of life, and the destruction of infrastructure, leaving the country’s social systems in tatters.   Today, as Liberia joins other nations around the world in marking the International Day of the African Child (DAC), the extent of the problem can be seen in the statistics. However, the true depth of the African child's struggle in Liberia is revealed in their personal stories. Each statistic represents a young life seeking the chance to thrive and a voice longing to be heard.

An estimated 270,000 people died while another 850,000 were displaced. During this war, over 10,000 children were recruited as child soldiers. 

After the war ended the children could return to civilian life, yet in many cases former child soldiers had no surviving relatives or could not locate their families post-conflict.  Those that were reunited with their families often did not remain and chose a life on the street instead.  The subsequent lack of resources and limited access to quality education has perpetuated the vicious cycle of poverty, making it increasingly difficult for children to escape the clutches of destitution.

“It is a situation where perhaps those who are to mitigate think that they cannot be harmed,”  Livingstone says. “Perhaps they think they have security in any form, but i tell them they are still not safe if we don’t handle this situation.

 “And i will not even be able to walk with a bottom phone in the street. So can you imagine if we were to have anything that will get into a war like situation the entire nation will perish,” she added.

Social issues have played their part in the growth of street children. While  Liberia was attempting to rebuild,  it suffered from war and disease which have, in turn, crippled the economy, destroyed the education system and devastated many communities.

In 2014, Liberia was struck by the Ebola virus, orphaning as many as 7,500 children. By that time, most of the former child soldiers had grown up, but the massive fatality rate of Ebola in Liberia (as indicated by CDC – 45%) fostered a new generation of street children. 

In addition to losing entire families, the surviving children were subject to stigmatization and ostracization from their peers. 

“All in school the drugs have entered and no one thinks about it. No one is doing something about it. When I speak of no one, I am speaking in a bracket of leaders who are supposed to take the lead is not just a ceremonial thing. It’s practical steps, practical action,” Livingstone say. 

In Montserrado, the statistics from the Ministry of Gender paint a grim picture of a future generation growing up lacking education and  at risk of drug addiction, physical trauma, and trouble with the law. Number of street children in Montserrado stands at a staggering high of 153,982 out of 366,584, the Ministry data shows. 

The lack of economic opportunities and the declining education system have also played a role in children migrating to the streets, experts say.  The World Bank estimates that 50.1 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line (US$1.25/day), with about 1.3 million living in extreme poverty. 

This poverty has prompted parents to force their children to work on the city streets for extra income. Destitute and desperate rural parents often send their children to the city with local businessmen who promise an education and more opportunity. 

Unfortunately, once in the city, children are exploited for their labor. Even if they flee the situation, they remain living in the city, where they resort to prostitution and selling in the street to survive. One such child is Peter Kollie, who confidently weaves his way between cars down Monrovia in pursuit of meeting his needs.

The 16 year old, who sleeps where night catches him, is a  vehicle loader — directing likely passengers to share an empty taxi — and when the taxi is full with passengers, the driver gives him L$20.  At the end of the day, what he earns per day is barely enough to eat and feed his drug addiction.

Kollie was in school but lost his parents to Ebola in 2014. Two years ago, he thought of his aunt, he joined the street as a result of peer pressure. 

The lad’s situation is not unique to him alone. 17-year-old Christiana Brown lived on the street as a result of poverty, which she says made life hard for her family. 

Brown, who lived by prostitution was introduced to drugs and a life on the streets by  a friend and now shares an abandoned building with other homeless youths and drug users, surviving off of whatever they can afford. 

According to UNICEF, approximately 60 percent of Liberian children live in poverty, while nearly half of all girls aged 15-19 have experienced sexual violence. The statistics are disheartening, but the reality is even more stark. In Monrovia, children can be seen anywhere on the streets, barefoot and hungry, selling goods or begging for money. Many are forced to drop out of school to help support themselves and their families. For girls, situation is dire 

The same UNICEF report states that approximately 64% of primary school-aged children are out of school, a disheartening figure that highlights the alarming rate of educational deprivation. Factors such as limited infrastructure, a scarcity of qualified teachers, and the unaffordability of school fees all contribute to the exclusion of children from educational opportunities..

Liberia, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) — a legally binding international instrument for the guarantee and the protection of child’s rights in 2011, passed laws to safeguard children from harmful vices that can hamper their growth and development, such as trafficking, forced labor, and other forms of bad behavior. 

The Children Rights Law (CRL) is a piece of legislation that requires the Ministries of Gender, Labor, and Justice to address rapid growth of street children but, after more than ten years of legislations passed, there are still many unmet needs.  

Activists say ten years since the creation of such a landmark instrument, no progress has been made as child labor still remains another pressing concern that continues to plague Liberia. 

Due to economic hardships and limited job opportunities for adults, children are often forced to engage in hazardous and exploitative labor to support their families. They work in mines, plantations, and other dangerous environments, risking their health, safety, and overall development.  

The International Labour Organization (ILO) also estimates that more than 50% of Liberian children between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in some form of child labor, effectively robbed of their childhood and the chance to thrive.

The Director of the Child Justice Session at the Justice Ministry, Atty. Alben Greaves,  in 2021 told the Daily Observers that the country is heavily challenged in addressing the issue involving children at risk and children both in conflict and contact with the law.

It is the Justice Ministry's role to enforce the Children Rights Law but the government has nowhere to take the kids when they are taken off the streets, which Greaves says is the biggest challenge  of the government. 

“The government lacks safe and transit homes, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and feedings,” Greaves says.  This is still a serious challenge that has stopped the government from being proactive in the process today.”

It is not like the government had not tried. In 2013, the then administration of President Ellen Johson Sirleaf tried taking the kids off the streets but had no facilities to care for the children. The project then became a failure and the number of children on the street has since grown significantly.