Liberia: Changing the Gender Narrative in the Rubber Sector

From right: Sieneh Kerkula, Winner M. Binda, and Roseline Sieh (left) have the same job — to drive the royal blue tractors back and forth with construction materials as fast as they can to meet up construction deadlines every day.

On the outskirts of a Weala, in Margibi County, the  Jeety Rubber factory is buzzing with construction activity. Tractor engines growl and rumble, workers shout orders and directions —  but the speed at which work is done rests on the shoulders of three ladies.

Their jobs — to drive two royal blue tractors -- moving back and forth with construction materials —  as fast as they can to meet up with construction deadlines every day.

And under the blazing sun, the three ladies —  Sieneh Kerkula, Winner M. Binda, and Roseline Sieh are addressed in overalls of the same hue and would be seen giving out instructions to co-workers —  who are men to hurriedly fill the tractors as they need to deliver materials to the construction site quickly. 

With more than half decades of experience as tractor drivers, the work ethics and performance of Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh have been hailed by business tycoon Upjit Singh Sachdeva, who is investing US$25 million to operate a rubber processing and production plant that would produce rubber products like tyers, hand gloves, and rain boots — the first of its kind in the county.

"I believe it is incorrect for us, males, to continue to believe that women are weak and unfit for a certain job; but, when given that task, they always show that notion incorrect," Sachdeva added.  “In reality, the females here are as strong as the men, and their performance has ensured that they will be on the list of persons hired when the plant opens. I like their serenity, dedication, and hard work."

The factory when operational is expected to create 300 skills and non-skilled jobs as well as prioritize the purchasing of the 25,000 tons of rubber annually from local rubber planters from across the 15 counties as a means of boosting their economic livelihood. 

So far, the construction phase of the projects has created nearly 100 short-term jobs, with women occupying roughly 5 percent of the workforce with Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh being the only women working in the physical construction field.

Changing the narrative

The ladies —  all mothers — are doing a job that is most believed to be reserved for men; the ones big, strong, burly, and mechanically adept.  Their region, Weala, located some 47 miles from the capital Monrovia, is plagued by extreme poverty like many districts, villages, and towns across the country, and jobs like driving heavy-duty vehicles are an odd career choice for women.

The misperception, according to the ladies, prompted them to pursue a career as professional tractor drivers – a career choice intended to dispel the notion that vocations, such as operating tractors, are exclusive to men. They noted that the job suited them more than the beauty of working in the kitchen, where many of her friends work, and that it provides a feeling of independence. They are the factory's sole female workers in the physical construction industry.

"There are several chances for women in this type of profession, but they are hesitant to pursue them because many people regard the positions to be men's jobs. That is not how we perceive things. Rather, a job with long-term economic rewards. Having such hard talents pays," the ladies stated.

" We love that our offices are mobile. Having control gives us an extra sense of pride," Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh said as they turned off the engine and hopped down from the tractor's seats.

They walk confidently across the field, smiling and laughing with their male colleagues and asking if the materials they were given were sufficient or if more were required. The scene depicts women who are both comfortable at work. But it is one that remains uncommon on my construction sites across the country.

"They are very good at their job, they don't cause many problems, and they are committed to what they do. Furthermore, they ensure that their male colleagues complete their tasks in a timely and orderly manner," Sachdeva stated. "If they continue on this path, I envision them supervising the other tractor workers once the company is up and running. I am willing to hire more female tractor drivers.”

"They're gentle on the machinery, a little more cautious, and a little more patient - but that doesn't mean they're nanny drivers or anything," Sachdeva added.

Morally wrong

While Sachdeva would like to see more women from Weala follow Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh,  some men there argued that the job is not suitable for women.

The men, who requested anonymity, argued that while the trios are not new to tractor driving, they should find something else to do because they have a home to look after and their career choice is morally wrong.

Beliefs like this are not limited to Weala men, but exist throughout the country, making it difficult for women to enter the construction sector as heavy-duty vehicle drivers. Women are still in the minority in agriculture concession fields where they are given the opportunity to drive tractors.

So, while Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh may be in the minority of drivers who live up to the stereotype, their jobs keep them in man's world. And women who venture into it frequently have to put up with a lot.

"You must have very thick skin. You must also have a lot of guts. Because you're in such a male-dominated environment, and there's a lot of barriers,”  the trios said.

The beginning 

Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh became tractor drivers for similar reasons. However, Kerkula and Binda acquired their tractor driving skills from the Salala Rubber Company, which operates in  Margibi County —  saw the skill as a long-term job guarantor, which would support them till they are tired.

"At first, I was concerned about what others would say about me. They say the job is dirty, but I reject that notion knowing that being a tractor driver has long-term benefits," Kerkula said. "You may be out of work at some point, but the skill is valuable, so you can work anywhere. I don't want my children to suffer as I did growing up, so I learned a skill that will provide me with long-term job security. I enjoy driving, and I believe that anything men can do, women can do as well.”

As a single mother, she shoulders the burdens and responsibilities of the kids and home alone.

Binda, for her part, took up tractor driving not only for financial reasons, but also to put an end to the "disadvantage" she had suffered at the hands of men she had previously dated. And it pays off: Binda is now a house owner in Weala, while also caring for her two children, thanks to her skill.

She did, however, reveal that while learning to drive a tractor, she was bullied by some of their colleagues for stepping into the shoes of men and was told that she would not be able to bear a child as a result of the workload as a tractor driver.

"You are unlikely to find a man who will be supportive if you are sitting at home doing nothing. They may not even value you, but if you have valuable skills, you gain prestige and become more self-sufficient. So I'm encouraging every female to think outside the box and learn hard skills. It pays.”

Sieh's reasoning is similar to that of her colleagues. The former Golden Veroleum employee, who learned her trade there, believes that women can do any driving involved in trucking.

“I love my job. It doesn't just provide me with income but also adds prestige to my life. I am a woman of skill and value. I want to do something that will make me economically independent so I pushed my male colleagues at Golden Veroleum to give me the opportunity, which they did.  I am even willing to learn more; not only this tractor alone.”

Meanwhile, Kerkula, Binda, and Sieh have announced their intention to go beyond just tractor driving but truck and other heavy-duty equipment —  an ambition that Scadeva has pledged to support.

They plan to talk to their male colleagues who are driving the equipment to use the out-of-work time to learn such skills.  

“The way we look at it is, everyone deserves a good chance and should not be looked down on because of their gender. Women are not afraid of hard work, we just need support.

They noted that in the month they have worked at the factory construction site, they feel accepted by their colleagues, but at times, no workers still stereotyped them.