By Hannah Gerterminah & Simeon S. Wiakanty
Amid the public outburst of anger and indignation over the rape and abuse of over a dozen girls by a staff of the More Than Me (MTM) Academy, along with attempts by its founder, Katie Meyler, to cover-up evidence and protect the culprit, Macintosh Johnson (now deceased), the chair of the SHEROES International Forum Liberia, Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, believes the situation is much bigger than More Than Me. “A tip of the iceberg”, she called it.
Speaking at her Capitol Building office last week, in a prelude to the launch the ‘Jewel Starfish Foundation’ to provide scholarship and other education empowerment for girls across Liberia, VP Taylor said the More Than Me issue mainly highlights problems the country faces to enable the Liberian people to understand how vulnerable girls are in society.
“We must look at it holistically to help us solve the problem our girls are going through in their homes, schools, and offices,” the vice president said. “The issue of protecting girls should be highlighted on the government’s agenda through the Ministries of Gender and Justice.”
Madam Taylor said teachers in various institutions are harassing girls for sex or money because they have refused to study their lessons to make a pass and noted that women and girls are often abused by people they know not by strangers because most abuses are done by men though there are some cases of women.
Government needs to begin information awareness in schools and communities “because they are the same boys that grow up and start to abuse their wives and rape girls in the homes, schools, and communities.” -VP Jewel Howard Taylor
“When I was growing up we heard about rape rarely but today, every second you hear about babies, girls or women who are raped by people they know,” Madam Taylor said. “It was not like that before. Your cousin would take you out as a little girl and they will make sure you come back home safely to your parents. They became a shield. Why are we where we are today?”
She said the government needs to check up the gender unit to understand how they are addressing issues affecting women and girls in the country.
The vice president said maternal mortality and sexual abuse have become a national epidemic that needs urgent attention from the government.
She said the government needs to begin information awareness in schools and communities “because they are the same boys that grow up and start to abuse their wives and rape girls in the homes, schools, and communities.”
“There are little girls that have been raped and have died, some have lost their womb without their knowledge and as soon they reached womanhood they are unable to bear children. It is a problem that we must address as a government, CSOs, and family,” she said.
Madam Taylor said the DNA machine that was brought to the JFK by the international community must be used to help the government investigate rape cases.
Flossy Tachie-Menson, Co-Founder of the SHEROES Foundation, told the Daily Observer in an interview that if her organization is willing to intervene and assist if requested by the women of Liberia, concerning the girls at the center of the MTM debacle. According to her, the forum’s aim is to help women and girls across Africa solve problems affecting them. She said the MTM issue has not been brought to the forum’s attention and therefore they cannot interfere.
Grand Kru County Senator Peter Coleman, a medical doctor and chairman on the Senate committee on Health, said the current situation involving MTM only shows how vulnerable women and girls are in the various boarding (mission) schools. Coleman said because girls are vulnerable, he will lobby with his colleagues to ensure that the rape law is not amended to make the crime bailable, but that it should require a speedy investigation for alleged rape victims.
He said if the Senate makes rape a bailable crime it will cause more harm than good because the victim will have to live with the perpetrator in the same community. Coleman said victims living in the communities with alleged perpetrators pose insecurity and causes serious trauma.
It may be recalled that Ms. Katie Meyler entrusted a man named Macintosh Johnson to recruit vulnerable young girls in West Point for her school, which opened in 2013.
Johnson, who later died in prison, allegedly from AIDS, was her main contact on the ground while she continued to live outside of Liberia for up to 10 months a year lobbying for funding for her organization. According to police records, Johnson repeatedly raped several young girls under his care at his home and on the school property.
Meanwhile a group of women from the Liberia Feminist Forum (LFF) has asked the Government of Liberia to immediately revoke the national accreditation of More Than Me (MTM) Academy and the management of the school under the Ministry of Education’s Liberia Advancement Program (LAP).
Facia Harris, the spokesperson of the group in a petition to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Gender and other government agencies, said they were deeply troubled by the ProPublica report released on October 11, detailing the incidents of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation of the Liberian girls under the care of the More Than Me (MTM) Academy.
The group’s statement said, “We want to add our voices to the Liberian government to institute the following measures, to immediately revoke the national accreditation of More Than Me academy under the Ministry of Education Liberia Advancement Program (LEAP).
She also called on the government to appoint a trustee and to relocate the More Than Me Academy given circumstances surrounding the ownership and the stigma associated with it.
She said the government should re-assign all the 19 public schools under the management of MTM Academy in the LEAP program to another organization and the GOL must ask for the establishment of an Independent Trust Fund by MTM to cover school fees, uniforms, feeding, transportation, stipends and all medical costs for all the students through graduation from high school, and the funds should be administered by a selected Liberian women organization.
Madam Harris’s statement demanded that MTM institute healthcare and psycho-social counseling for all the students at the MTM Academy, among others.
She requested for an independent audit report of MTM’s financial activities in Liberia since 2013, and an independent investigation to review the activities of MTM Academy in Liberia from its after school program in 2011 up to the present in order to determine the full scope and magnitude of the organization’s activities regarding safety, security and the welfare of these girls.
“We demand that MTM makes available key documentations as part of the investigation to determine what action was taken by MTM and its board and the documentation should include but not limited to two reports by senior staff cited in the publication of the MTM risk policy, and video of the interview of the perpetrator conducted by MTM cameraman.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Education Ansu Sonii said the Ministry is concerned and has begun taken necessary steps to deal with the civil aspect of the case while the legal aspect is being handled by MOJ. “We have earlier held an emergency meeting with the Ministry of Justice, Gender Ministry, Youth and Sports including other government agencies concerned and we are going to ensure that it will not be repeated,” the statement said.