Changing the Fabric of Liberia
“Around the World” is another of her favorites. A pattern made of concentric blue and green circles, it’s an appropriate metaphor for Messie and her fellow students at Women of Today, a new “teaching store” in Voinjama Town. They are among the many Liberians whose lives have been dramatically transformed by an innovative economic initiative implemented by the International Rescue Committee.
Recognizing that social exclusion and vulnerability often results from economic disenfranchisement, the IRC-sponsored shop is one of several vocational skills trainings in Liberia that teach vulnerable youth and women marketable skills. “I’m very, very happy now,” says Messie, showing off her latest work.
Indeed, joy and industriousness light up Women of Today. From early morning until late evening, women fold, tie and stain fabric, then dry their work on clotheslines. They talk and laugh—some with babies on their backs—and by all accounts, their products are popular commodities at the village market.
Economic self-sufficiency … it’s a big change for women who just yesterday were disenfranchised returnees to a devastated region. “After the war, women were just on the street doing nothing, suffering because they didn’t have any skills,” explains Emelia Sheku, who helped launch Women of Today and other projects in and around Voinjama Town, including a sewing cooperative, carpentry workshop and hairdressing salons. “They were very vulnerable; some aren’t married.”
IRC staff like Emelia identify candidates who might benefit from apprenticeships, set them up with mentors and supply the materials for training. Upon graduation, students are awarded certificates and kits to start their own businesses. “We follow up with them,” says Emelia. “We help them make sure they are doing something for themselves.”
A Share in the Future
Messie, who spent several years living in a refugee camp in Guinea, is the sole income-earner for her mother, father, sisters and children. After graduation, she hopes to open her own tie-and-dye shop where she can train other vulnerable women like herself. Emelia is confident this budding businesswoman will do both. “She convinced me to buy, says Emelia, ‘Around the World’ in green and white!”
Asked if changing women’s futures might change the fabric of Liberia, Emelia nods. “You do something like this, you sell in the community, handle money and educate your children, you will see the changes. You will see so many changes.”