Since the publication by the international watchdog, ProPublica, of horrific accounts of sexual abuse and predatory behavior against young girls by the co-founder of the American NGO, More Than Me, Johnson Macintosh, there have been unceasing calls from the public on government to hold those responsible accountable before the law. Some have even called on President Weah to ensure that the perpetrators do not go with impunity but should rather face the full weight of the law.
This, according to them, is necessary in order to set a precedent that will serve to deter others from engaging in such predatory sexual behavior. Amongst those individuals who have called on President Weah to take strong measures against the perpetrators is ActionAid Liberia Country Director Lakshmi S. Moore. She says it is appalling that More Than Me (MTM), a not for profit organization that has built its foundation and fundraising appeal on its response to the sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls in West Point, neglected its cardinal role for its liaison to abuse those he was charged to protect.
Mrs. Moore said “MTM created an environment that enabled the very abuse for which they claimed to raise money to address and protect girls from.”
Mrs. Moore said access to education is not just about getting girls in schools, but making sure the challenges that girls face before, during and after school are also addressed, indicating that “the history of abuse and sexual violence in schools was not new so why did MTM ignore it?”
Mrs. Moore says if the Weah led-government cares about girls’ education, it needs to set precedent to ensure that schools do not become playgrounds for predators and do not reward those who enable predators.
She said MTM cannot claim to care about girls who were being abused and then turn around and create an environment that encourages abuse. Moore said some of the instances reported of girls being taken out of their homes late or sharing bed with MTM’s founders, were problematic.
“We are concerned about actions taken to prevent this systemic neglect. Given the role MTM plays in the Partnership Schools Liberia (PSL) program now rebranded as LEAP, how much did all actors, from the Ministry of Education to the private providers and funders know or cared to know in 2016 when they awarded MTM six schools? And most importantly what actions will be taken against MTM now”? Mrs. Moore asked.
She said if the Weah led-government cares about girls’ education, it needs to set precedents to ensure that schools do not become playgrounds for predators and do not reward those who enable predators.
“MTM has a responsibility to these girls, their families, community and their future. This government has an opportunity, once again, to take a stand and say no more. If government doesn’t take a strong stand, it is sending a message that girl’s bodies and future can be taken for granted simply because someone claims to do or try to do good,” Mrs. Moore said.
According to Mrs. Moore, these girls were more than just “sex workers,” they are Liberia’s citizens whose dreams of education and better life were used to raise funds without accountability to protect them from predators.
Where was ‘Abigail’ at the trial?
Brenda M. B. Moore, founder and executive director of Kids’ Educational Engagement Project (KEEP) said “I know how it feels to have the people you trust violate your trust, steal away your innocence, and sexually abuse you. I know the guilt of shame and the pains of blame which ensued. I know the fears, the doubts, the deep scars and the mental anguish to be borne for a lifetime. I know how the girls, who were raped. sexually abused and exploited feel now.”
Brenda M. B. Moore, founder and executive director, Kids Educational Engagement Project: “It therefore struck me as seriously odd that More Than Me (its face and founder) came to be so absent at the trial where it was so obvious the survivors and the Liberian society needed them the most…”
Ms. Moore said even today, more than thirty years later, she lives with the haunted memories and emotional scars of being sexually abused as a child.
“As a way of healing, helping others heal as well as raising awareness to and preventing the crime and immorality of child sexual abuse and its associated cover-up which is so prevalent in our society, in December of 2017, I publicly told the story of being sexually abused as a child,” she said.
She said the story of the rape and sexual abuse of the children, and what appears to amount to efforts to cover them up is mind-numbing and outrageous. It is wrong and it is shameful.
“Of course the claim of a systematic cover up at More Than Me is being disputed. However, what has NOT been denied is the rape of the children – the abuse of their bodies and their trust. What is undeniable is the promise of help spurned into lifetime of hurt, sickness and deaths from HIV/AIDS,” Ms. Moore said.
Who do we hold responsible for these girls?
“Who do we hold responsible for turning a blind eye or not taking better steps to protect those they promised a better life, and swore to protect,” Mrs. Moore asked.
According to her, she is not in a position to pass judgments on the intentions of MTM founder Katie Meyler. But it is hard not to imagine that more could have been done to help the survivors and to protect them. This is especially true if MTM, as promised, was dedicated to give survivors of sexual abuse and rape a chance at healing and a better life, in their care and protection, she observed.
“How could it have seemed right and appropriate to take traumatized child-survivors of sexual abuse and rape to adult raunchy parties, and sleep-ins,” Ms. Moore who manages a local charity organization, primarily with children instilling in them a culture of reading said.
She continued “It’s pretty tough managing a charitable organization, especially a local one with both funding and capacity challenges. But we do this because we care. We must care about the people for whom we are claiming to be charitable, in this case, and like mine, the children, their parents, their wellbeing, and of course, their futures.”
Mrs. Moore said “It therefore struck me as seriously odd that More Than Me (its face and founder) came to be so absent at the trial where it was so obvious the survivors and the Liberian society needed them the most – needed them to demonstrate sufficiency of care for and understanding of the evil of child sexual abuse.”
“Where was ‘Abigail’ at the trial? How must the abused and raped girls have felt unguarded in the courts staring at one of their alleged abusers, alone? What could have been more important to More Than Me than to stand with the survivors in the trial, and on their behalf say, as truthfully as they could, what they knew, and when they came to know it?” she wondered.
According to her, MTM was not just a key witness but also a key member of the prosecution; how could they not have known this? How could they not have known that their absence would undermine the survivors when, as claimed, they were instrumental in bringing the matter to the attention of the authorities, and the alleged abuse and rape are said to have mostly happened on their premises?
“How can you remotely lay just claims to helping survivors of child abuse and sexual exploitation when you choose to be silent and absent before the law where it is so much harder for alleged victims, especially children?
“As to exploitation, maybe Johnson may have sexually exploited their bodies, but should we have been alerted earlier to possible exploitation of their conditions when the children were being advertised to the world as ‘prostitutes’ for fundraising purposes? As parents, as members of society, and as government, where must we draw the line? How could we let this happen?” she said.
Ms. Moore said Liberia needs help, the country is desperate for support with many social problems, especially inherited from our years of conflicts and decline.
“However, our desperation for help must not permit us to be blinded to long term negative consequences a “help” may engender, whether the consequences are intended or unintended. How could we have permitted a Liberian child to be introduced to the world as a “prostitute”?
No doubt, what we have read and seen about this story is outrageous. But it is not enough to merely express how outrageous it is. We must remind ourselves, if we needed to be, that child abuse, rape and exploitation are real in our society” Ms. Moore stressed.
At KEEP, Ms. Moore said, “we are introducing policies and measures, including against inappropriate touching, of children placed into our care. And we’re encouraging them to speak freely about any inappropriate behavior.”
“All of us, wherever we may be, we need to do more. We cannot change what happened to those girls but we can work together to ensure such fates never befall other children across our society. We have a moral duty to do so,” she added.
Meyler should step aside
Meanwhile, the founder of Obaa’s Girls Educational Outreach, Miatta Fahnbulleh, has called on the government to revamp the More Than Me school and run it as government institution.
Madam Fahnbulleh who spoke with the Daily Observer yesterday in an interview called on the government to ensure that the image of the school is built and continues to provide better education to Liberian girls.
Madam Fahnbulleh said Meyler Katie who is the founder of the More Than Me (MTM) should not be given the opportunity to run the school, despite her ability to raise millions for children in Liberia.
“Like Katie, I’m not a qualified teacher, but I hired the best teachers to teach the children. We had to close the school down due to lack of support to keep up the standards we had set,” Fahnbulleh, said.
She said it was unfortunate for MTM to even hire teachers from the western world, as there were many qualified Liberians who would teach the children and even take better care of them.
Madam Fahnbulleh said the government under former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was not prepared to put enough money into education.
According to her, this was the beginning of the problem, because the young man who was put in charge already knew these girls from the street and continued to exploit them. She said it was impossible for Katie to say she does not know about the problem.
“This young lady had the support of the former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Ministry of Education and would require that one stands and watch as Katie has the support of the powers that be. I felt that no one would listen to me as compared to Katie,” she said.
“We have people in Liberia who had gone to early retirement and still have the capacities to teach, but had run out of the teaching profession for well-paid jobs. Katie Meyler could have afforded to pay a Liberian principal a thousand United States dollars,” she said.
“I met with Katie and we talked. I realized that we were catering to the same group of people, but Katie was more focused on sex workers with the aim to get them from the streets and welcome education, while Obaa’s Girls was looking for girls who had not gone on the street. Katie said clearly that the children were sex workers and so on. I asked that, besides the uniforms, books and food provided, will you be giving them financial stipends, because the children were already the bread winners of their homes and therefore, it was necessary to find a way to stop them from going into the streets. Katie’s response was no,” Madam Fahnbulleh said.
“In 2006, after the inauguration, President Sirleaf called me at her office to ask me help her administration and I made it clear that I was also helping the administration in the foundation of Obaa’s Girls Educational Outreach with the education of young girls. It was something that I was interested in and wanted to make a full time effort and hoped would get the support from the government, but unfortunately, that did not happen,” she said.
According to Madam Fahnbulleh, Obaa’s Girls was offering what is being offered by More Than Me and even more, including the safe keeping of girls, self-esteem and the same community (West point). Madam Fahnbulleh said she gathered rumors about the situation currently being unearthed, but could not raise awareness on the issue, for fear of Obaa’s Girls being accused of jealousy.
Obaa’s Girls started in Ghana in 2003 with the aim to offer Liberian girls in the refugee’ camp education, because Liberia had thousands of its citizens in the Budumburam Camp who did not have their children in school.
“I was concerned about the girls… so we started the scholarship program. Coming to Monrovia in 2005, I saw the need again and noticed on Ashmun Street were a lot of young girls coming to draw water in the morning. My concern was why these kids are not in school and asking them, the answer was no money to go to school,” she said.