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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Nothing To Do - Ann Jones in Liberia
January 21, 2008
By The IRC
|Women in the Slipway area of Monrovia spend hours morning and evening buying and hauling water from polluted wells. Photo: Anna Snyder|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women's advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa. If you're just joining us, you can read her first series of posts from Cote d'Ivoire at theIRC.org/16days
The story continues in Liberia, where Ann is blogging on Mondays and Thursdays into February.
Monrovia, Liberia In Cote d’Ivoire, village women protested that their husbands treat them like slaves. Husbands force them to do hard labor, at home and on the farms, day in day out. Women want their husbands to help with the work. They need rest.
In Liberia, women say just the opposite.
In Montserrado County I meet with Women’s Action Groups in West Point, Slipway, Paynesville, Topoe Village, Chocolate City, and more.
Everywhere women say, “We sit idle. We have nothing to do.”
It turns out on closer questioning that “nothing to do” is not exactly nothing. Women run the home and look after the children. They get food and the firewood or charcoal to cook it. They wash dishes and clothes and children and floors; and they haul the water to do these things. But being urban women, they don’t have to plant swamp rice or dig cassava tubers. They just do housework.
Don’t underestimate the labor involved in that. The Slipway community, not far from the center of Monrovia, has no safe water at all. Every day women walk long distances and wait in line to buy drinking water at 20 LD a gallon. (That’s nearly fifty cents, no small amount for a poor family.) Another long walk in another direction brings them to a polluted well where they buy water for cooking and bathing and laundry at 5 LD a gallon. Often the water is rationed, and they return to a family of six or seven with only a gallon. Here near the heart of the capital city, women spend hours every day, morning and evening, hauling water. Slipway women say their husbands beat them, but given a choice between ending domestic violence and gaining a source of clean water, they would choose water.
Still they say they have nothing to do. What they want, as the Global Crescendo photographers told us at our very first meeting is “skills.” They want someone to teach them to be taxi drivers or carpenters, but they’ll settle for less profitable occupations like tailoring or hairdressing. They want to learn to read and write and do sums and manage a business. They want jobs and money to feed their children and send them to school. Even a free government school costs money, for school uniforms and shoes; and free schools are few and far between.
Almost every member of the Logantown Women’s Development Association on Bushrod Island has something to sell. Photo: Patience WalkerWomen say, “When you are poor, you have nothing to do.” What they mean is, “When you are a poor woman doing housework, you have nothing to show for it.” I go to Bushrod Island to visit the “Logantown Women’s Development Association.” They have a big sign on the store front where they meet. The group was established on July 3, 2005, by a woman named Christina W. Cummings (Executive Director) who worked for twenty-five years in the Ministry of Finance. She thinks about money. Women in Bushrod Island suffer from familiar problems—no clean water, no sanitation, habitual wife beating, and abandonment—but the Logantown Women’s Development Association is focused on just that: economic development. The members work against violence too, raising awareness in the community and bringing survivors to the IRC social worker. But the bigger problem, Christina Cummings says, is that women of Bushrod Island have nothing to do. They introduce themselves. Patience, the community’s photographer in the Global Crescendo Project, is married with four children. She sells soap. The group secretary Margaret is married with three children. She sells fried and baked goods. Elizabeth, the community mobilizer has six children and a husband out of work. She sells water and soft drinks. Martina, the peer educator, sells dry goods. Patricia, whose husband isn’t working, sells fried cookies. Blessing, whose husband is “away,” sells dry goods. A widow who takes care of her grandchildren sells peanuts to pay their school fees. Two other women, each with three children, have nothing to sell. As the introductions continue, I see that these two are the only women in the group who are not already in business. Almost every woman at the meeting is the sole breadwinner in her family. These idle women with nothing to do think big. They want a vocational school where they can learn skilled trades. They want capital to upgrade their businesses and increase their income, which is never enough to go around or get ahead.
In their meeting hall, one member of the Logantown Women’s Development Association teaches others how to do hair plaiting, a potentially profitable skill one step up from selling water or peanuts. Photo: Patience WalkerI’m still puzzled, as I was at our first meeting with the Montserrado photographers, by why these women’s action groups, supposedly devoted to ending violence against women, are so eager to make soap. But I’m beginning to get it. To acquire skills is to acquire a trade that trumps selling fried cookies. You can send all your children to school; you don’t have to pick and choose among them. You can buy uniforms and shoes. You don’t have to ask your boyfriend or your husband for money, which he probably wouldn’t give you anyway. He will see for himself that at last you are doing something. You are not “idle.” He will have respect for you. He will have so much respect for you that he won’t abandon you and the children for another woman in another part of town. Or if he has already gone, he will come back. He will stay with you forever, and he won’t hit you anymore.