“One day we got a call from someone who was going to work, she was screaming down the phone saying ‘there is something that is happening you need to see’ … (so we went)….. there was a woman giving birth on the side of the road, people were around her looking. We discovered that she had gone to the hospital but been turned away because of fear about contact with body fluids, so she had her baby on side of the road. The baby died but she survived. So we can’t just focus on the Ebola infections and people going to the Ebola Treatment Unit because a lot of issues will fall through the cracks, especially issues of marginalised groups, including women.”
These are the words of Korto Williams, ActionAid Liberia’s Country Director during an update to staff and supporters in the London office. Ebola killed nearly 5,000 people in Liberia. Korto was instrumental in leading ActionAid’s response to the crisis. She explained that the woman’s baby didn’t die because of Ebola, but because there is no health system for the poor.
ActionAid’s approach to improving lives is both intensely political and practical at the same time. They are also in it for the long-term. Here is an edited selection from Korto’s talk:
“Who are we, what is our identity? We are an International NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) but prefer to call ourselves a unique partnership of people, organisations and social movements committed to ending poverty. The reason we distinguish ourselves from other international and national NGO’s in Liberia is because ActionAid has a unique approach of listening to those affected by issues, whether at community or national level.
This is the information on which we base our programmes. We don’t come in with ready-made packages and say this is what you are supposed to do to change your situation, we don’t have the legitimacy to do that, so we form a partnership and make really strong relationships with communities. We work with 180 communities in 9 regions and with 25 partner organisations.
ActionAid started in Liberia in 1997 during the civil war, initially with humanitarian assistance. There were a lot of refugees and internally displaced people. We supplied an emergency response. 10 years on, by 2007, we had adopted a rights based programme. Many of those who had been displaced received training from us. When they returned to their communities we continued to work with them, so it is like we have known each other forever- they started when ActionAid started and we have seen the benefits of that.
In 2013 we started our first strategy paper. It looks at women’s and girls’ rights, youth and urban poverty, and governance, with women’s rights almost 70% of our activity. But the 3 areas overlap as they are interlinked. We focus on bringing communities to the front line, the most at-risk groups, especially women, so they are able to identify their problems and analyse them from different perspectives- especially power and gender analysis – so they can decide which direction they would like to go. ActionAid supports them to solve those issues.
We do child sponsorship and work with young people in slum communities, including the urban poor of Monrovia where 50% of the 4.4 million population live. We help these young people to get involved in activities that bring economic independence to their communities. The reason we do this is because Liberia had a civil war for 15 years and young people were used to destroy the country. But now we look at them not just as a bad story that happened but at the benefits you get when young people recognise their roles as leaders.
WOMEN AND GIRLS
Our main priority is with women and girls and the reason for that is based on our learnings over a decade. If we invest in women and girls and the young people of Liberia we are able to change the context of development and the way people engage power and bring change in their communities.
ActionAid has the largest women’s rights programme of the international NGO’s in Liberia. Amongst many other activities we invest in girls’ education in 62 communities across 4 counties; we work with the women’s legislative caucus to ensure passing of the gender parity bill that seeks affirmative action to see more women in parliament. We work with the gender based task force that helps women in all areas with access to justice, such as ensuring they can get to the police or hospital when there is a problem.
After 10 years we have learnt that most national and community organisations who respond to FGM do so to protect the practice and not to end it.
FGM is prevalent in Liberia. It is shrouded in secrecy. When you talk about it in public there is a penalty from the statutory and traditional laws. Most of the women who join have signed an oath to protect their culture, to make sure this continues because it is seen as good for women and the society. If you go to the community and say to the cutters we want to talk about it, they say we can talk to you after we have talked to the elders, and they are not women. So it’s a power system, a system of oppression, about reinforcing how men and women are supposed to be in a society. There is a whole sociological analysis behind FGM that you have to understand to tackle it ….we never say FGM on the radio, we talk about traditional practices that affect women’s and girls’ rights.
A group of civil society organisations went to meet the head of a traditional council and said they were keen to talk to him about FGM. He said excuse me I need to go to the toilet and left his office. He locked the door with them inside. You get into trouble if you mention it publicly. Where we have succeeded is bringing the subject to the public space. Traditional organisations have said ActionAid can do training to help end it but only in the communities, not outside, or talk about it on the radio.
In 2008/9 the UN asked the Liberian government to criminalise FGM and they haven’t done it. We are on the ground and will produce a report to go to the UN to show that it’s continuing.
We facilitated the formation of first HIV network for women in Liberia. It now has over 2000 women and is part of the board of the National Aids commission, the country’s highest decision-making structure on HIV, chaired by the President. So these women who were not able to go on radio in 2006 as they were called prostitutes can now sit in a room with the President and make decisions on how to help women who have HIV.
HIV/Aids is a big part of our work because we don’t just see it as a medical or clinical issue, we also look at all of the different factors before, during and after infection. We work with the key population- LGBT, female sex workers, women at home with HIV- because not many other NGO’s will include them in their budget. We are the only international NGO working with some of these groups.
One of the reasons Ebola spread was a political problem – the reason the Government did not respond when it should have done was because they were in denial. They refused to acknowledge Ebola because the health system is almost non-existent and they didn’t want to recognise how bad Ebola was because they couldn’t respond. It was a political, technical and practical problem. Our role was to take the information to the Government about what was happening in the communities. We went to 278 communities in 6 counties, reached more than 373,000 people and worked with 280 volunteers – people who came to our office and offered to work without pay.
We are now looking at the post-Ebola phase, doing research, talking to people about why it happened like it did, and looking at public health and human rights. We will present a citizens assessment of the Ebola experience that will go to the Government.”
All that with just 37 staff.
Photos courtesy of ActionAid