Good Morning Church! It is good to be in the house of the Lord. I would like to thank Father A. Too Williams and the entire St. Stephen’s parish for granting me the opportunity to stand at the podium to delivery this lecture today.
My presentation will focus on gender related issues and will be delivered under the theme: “Actions for positive change.” I ask your indulgence, as I take few minutes to share with you these words.
Shall we all bow our heads in prayer…?
Olivia Lemuh Gbarnue was an adorable six year old girl who was full of life and had a dream of going to school with her peers, and just enjoying her childhood. Unfortunately Olivia’s parents separated and she and her mother, along with her two siblings, had to relocate to Todee in a family house owned by her mother’s relatives.
Olivia, a six year old child already going through the trauma of a broken home, was raped by the brother of her mother (her own uncle), who was 37 years old. The damage done to this child was enormous, both physically and emotionally. She had to undergo reconstructive surgery four times and ended up wearing pampers. Despite going through all of these, Olivia never gave up her dreams of going to school; she was still hopeful and saw herself as a normal child. Unfortunately, after struggling with this condition for six years, Olivia died at the age of twelve and her dreams, aspirations were cut short by an act committed against her by her own uncle.
Olivia’s mother was ostracized by her family for wanting to ensure that the perpetrator was brought to book and that justice prevails irrespective of the family ties. Church, Olivia could have been the daughter of any one of us here. The question is: What would you have done?
This is just one of the gender related challenges which Liberia as a country has to battle with: The issue of Gender Based Violence (GBV), including rapes, continues to be a frequently reported crime—statistics from 2015 indicated that out of the 1, 555 GBV cases, 68% were of sexual violence, of which 86% were female survivors under the age of 18 and 1.3% boys. For the first quarter of this year (January – March) a total of 303 GBV cases were reported – rape accounted for 56.1% and physical or domestic violence accounted for 17.8%.
In addition, Liberia is a country which has about half of the population being less than 18 years old – 44.6% of Liberians are 14 years or younger. Teenage pregnancy has also emerged as a critical issue which requires key attention. It is estimated that the teenage pregnancy rate is about 31%. And the number of births by teen mothers stands as high as 16%. Teenage girls in Liberia also continue to suffer the risk of harmful traditional practices, including FGM (female genital mutilation) and child marriage, and may also engage in prostitution. The consequences of child marriage, early and unwanted pregnancies and the complications associated with early pregnancies and childbirth are among the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 worldwide. FGM/FGC, forced sex (rape) and early marriage are contributing factors in the spread of HIV to women. And these practices infringe on the human rights of women and girls.
The Ministry of Gender and Development was established in 2001 as the national gender machinery mandated to advise government on all matters affecting the development and welfare of women and children as well as any other matters referred to it by the government. In 2014 an act was passed that amended the title and the mandate of the old ministry to that of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, with a mandate to promote the development, empowerment and protection of women, girls and children, as well as the welfare and integration of persons with disabilities, the vulnerable, extremely poor, excluded and disadvantaged.
As We carry out our mandate – there are key issues like, how to address the high rate of children on the streets whilst they should be in school, the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse in schools and the workplaces, economic empowerment of the youth, women (we have observed the predominance of women in the informal economy, with 90% employed in the informal sector or agriculture).
But what is alarming is the Illiteracy rate among women aged 15-49 are particularly high (60%) compared to men (30%). 42% of Liberian women and 18% of men have never attended school.
In rural areas, literacy rates are very low at 26%, while the gender gap in secondary school attendance is very high, with a net attendance ratio of 6% for females. While 19% of men have completed secondary school or higher, only 8% of women have accomplished the same.
Women’s political participation
As the national gender machinery, the ministry serves as the duty-bearer to ensure the domestication of several international conventions ratified by the government of Liberia. These include: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its related instruments including UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC); the AU Protocols on Women and Children, UNSCR 1325 on Women Peace and Security; and the Beijing Platform for Action.
Church, the question which needs to be answered is: What actions should we take to address these challenges mentioned to achieve positive change in country?
The Old Testament reading at Amos 6:1-7 summarizes the act of those who are complacent, not bothered by what is unfolding, they cause violence to come near, not grieved by the afflictions of others (but in this context, our country). Church, if we are to address the issue of rape in the country and other challenges mentioned it requires a collective effort; we can’t be complacent, it can’t be business as usual. We must be willing to change the status quo – the government, (the state, the community, including the religious community and the family). The government should ensure that laws are in place, and enforced, that prosecution takes place and justice prevails. Likewise, communities should report cases; communities should not shelter offenders; we must stop compromising cases, especially in the family; saving the family’s name can never be better than saving the life of a boy or girl or any individual who has been sexually abused.
Church, as Christians we have to, we must all learn to take responsibilities and fulfill our obligations to God, to our country, to our families, in our places of worship, and at our workplaces. 1st Timothy 6 – 11 tells us to “flee from these things and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, patience and meekness.” (What are these things?) We should flee from blaming the bad economic situation of our country and encourage our young daughters to become breadwinners of the home, pushing them out there, making them vulnerable to people who could take advantage of them; we should flee from shifting the blame on others when we allowed our little ones to be in the street at late hours and they fall prey to sexual abuse; we must flee from not being responsible parents or guardians and not mentoring how our young daughters are dressed before leaving our homes; we should flee from blaming others if we neglect our duty as parents to instill in our children those moral values in their formative years which will enable them to withstand peer pressure and are led astray by their peers (as rightly stated in Proverbs 22: 6 – Train up a child in the way he or she should go, even when he or she is old, they will not depart from it).
We should flee from bringing kids from the rural areas under the guise of helping them only to make them peddle wares in the streets and involve them in child labor; we should flee from giving help (be it scholarships or jobs) and requiring sexual favors in return; we should flee from sexual exploitation and abuse in our places of worship, at the worksite and at our school – if you can’t help them, don’t sleep with them; if you can’t teach them, don’t sleep with them. (To the students) If we can’t make the grades, let us not make the trade with our bodies.
As we are reminded by Psalm 146:3 – “Put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of man, in whom there is no trust.”
Lastly brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper – if we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, we would exhibit that genuine attitude to help others and not wanting anything in return, of supporting others and not trying to inflict pain or harm in any way, (you know it is often said about us women that we are our own and greatest enemy – let us be our sisters’ keeper, support one another, do away with this pull her down syndrome – especially in this period when we are promoting women’s participation in all facets… 2017 is around o!).
As it was commanded in John 15:12 about loving one another…
And as we leave here today knowing that we need to take action for positive change and bearing in mind that Matthew 7:12 says: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.”
The above lecture on gender on the theme, “Actions for Positive Change: Let Us Be Our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keeper,” was delivered at St. Stephen Episcopal Church, Monrovia on Sunday, September 25, 2016. Sienne Abdul-Baki is a Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Gender & Development, Republic of Liberia.