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Liberian Oak …Young Women Plant

April 21, 2010

Contact(s) Info:
Emily Brearley, E-Mail: ebrearley@worldbank.org, Tel. 202-458-5346

Jamama Walker, 23 years old, pulls back her shoulders and lifts up her chin in determination, "I’m not going to let any obstacles stop me now. They say you can plant a seed, and then you get an oak tree, you watch it grow and grow, and that is just what we are doing”. 

Her friend, Princess Sheriff, also 23, nods in agreement, “This is our chance to be independent. This is my chance to learn new things, and be a leader in my community – and one day teach other girls. We can’t allow our fear to overcome us”.  The project trains young women to work in the hospitality sector.

These girls are part of the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls & Young Women (EPAG) project, a three year pilot intervention that focuses on giving young Liberian women practical training to help them find  jobs.  With strong support from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberia pilot is the first of its kind, under the Bank’s global  Adolescent Girls Initiative, (AGI).
The project marks a new form of cooperation — it is being implemented by the Government of Liberia with support from the Nike Foundation and the Government of Denmark, with funds administered through the World Bank, which is also providing technical assistance.
Hopes are high for this innovative approach, but here on the ground the fear that Princess refers to is a palpable reality. According to a recent Vulnerability Assessment prepared for the project, girls and young women in Greater Monrovia live in a very fragile environment fraught with risks.
A protracted and bloody civil war which ended in 2003; and a high incidence of poverty – nearly 64 percent of Liberians live below the poverty line – have left broken homes, sexual violence, and prostitution a part of everyday life for many of Liberia’s young women.
Yet chatting outside this modest training center on the outskirts of Monrovia, these young women clearly do not consider themselves victims. In just three weeks of training they have adopted the rhetoric of female empowerment as a key to their country’s economic future. The project hopes to reward this enthusiasm with safe, sustainable jobs. 
Mercy Farna, 21, exclaims that she is really happy to be learning new skills. “It has already changed my life 100 percent. I graduated from high school three years ago and have been doing nothing – there was really nothing for me to do. In the future I want to support myself and also my parents if I can.”
Her friend Hale Matu Varnie, 27 years old, who has two kids of her own which she leaves in the crèche while she is in class, says her dad has supported her decision to join the program. “He is very proud of me; he always reminds me when it’s time to go to class”.
The AGI was launched in October, 2008 as part of the World Bank Group’s Gender Action Plan—Gender Equality as Smart Economics—which is helping to increase women’s economic opportunities by improving their access to the labor market, agricultural land and technology, credit and infrastructure services.
The ultimate aim of the project is to find safe, sustainable employment for 2,500 young Liberian women between the ages of 16-27 years. A focus on practical, demand-driven skills; identified through extensive private sector consultations, hopes to overcome problems with earlier training programs that didn’t always result in a weekly pay check, and in some instances even left young women open to abuse from their trainers.
Jamama and her cohort will be trained in professional cleaning, and the hospitality sector – both growth areas in the Liberian economy, with job placements and ongoing career advice from the project team. They will also be paired with female mentors from their communities, giving them the chance to learn business, and life skills, from someone they respect.
Inside the training room, the girls sit ramrod straight, their full attention on their trainers – one male, and one female, who take turns in leading the class. There is no light bulb, and the heat is stifling inside the small building, but the level of concentration is impressive. Posters line the walls, listing reasons why the girls should value themselves, and the skills they will be learning.
Expectations for the project run extremely high, but there is no denying that this is an incredibly complex undertaking. Liberia is a country in slow recovery, a country that has to rebuild itself again piece by piece – a vital part of that effort will be to include Liberia’s young, economically empowered women, so that they can contribute to the growth of their country.   
Check back in sixth months to see how Musu, Jamama, Mercy, Princess and Hale are getting on…