In Liberia’s Nimba County, many women are raising their children on their own.
Fathers often contribute little or nothing to their care, even if the mothers take them to court. Judges may side with the women and order the men to pay child support, but too often the men make a payment or two and then slip off to some other part of the country, never to be heard from again.
Their families are left to scrape by, frequently without enough money for the children to attend school.
Frederick Collins, a community justice advisor with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, which is supported by the Carter Center’s Access to Justice Project, is trying to change that.
Like the project’s 52 other advisors, his official duties involve teaching citizens about their rights and responsibilities under the law and providing mediation services for those who cannot afford to use the courts. But he wanted to do more for the women in his communities.
“I have a lot of sisters, and I just put myself in their shoes,” he said. “I’ve seen women, you know — men taking advantage of them — and it’s not fair. They also have rights, and they must be awarded those rights.”
So in two of the villages where he works — Buonplay and Zontou — he helped residents create women-only forums, where they could come together to discuss their difficulties and work together to find solutions.
Child support emerged as their top concern. The women pooled their savings and handed out small loans to those most in need, which has already helped get some children into school. About a year ago, at Collins’ urging, they also established farming cooperatives to grow eddoes, a root vegetable.
In Zontou, the district chairlady loaned the group a parcel of land; in Buonplay, the chiefs let them turn the village football field into a farm.
Collins, who used some of his own money to help them get started, meets with one group each Wednesday and the other each Saturday. After their meetings — which include discussions on laws related to rape, property ownership, inheritance rights, and other issues — the women go to work in the fields.
The first harvest was a modest success, though the football field didn’t prove especially fertile. The chiefs are looking for a new spot for the women to use next season. Meanwhile, Collins hopes to drum up the resources to introduce skills training for women so that they can learn to support themselves by making clothes or doing hair or cooking. Such skills are weather-proof and will help supplement their farming efforts.
Because the problem of persistent non-support plagues much of Liberia – not just Nimba County – The Carter Center is working with some of Collins’ fellow community justice advisors in other counties to focus more closely on women in difficult circumstances. It is currently in discussions with The Liberia Returnees Network, a group of Liberians who have come back from exile since the end of the civil war, about the possibility of providing skills training to some women.
When women are given the tools to shape their own destinies, anything is possible.