NORTH CHESTERFIELD, Virginia — In Liberia, 50.9% of the population lived in poverty in 2016. Women in poverty are usually suffering more than men due to gender wage gaps, domestic violence and inadequate public support systems. Lydia House International is an organization working to support Liberian women so they become women of substance and independence. Margo Rees, the founder and director of the organization, introduces the goals, programs, and the future of the organization in Liberia as she works with her Liberian partners Pastor Numehn Owen Dunbar and his wife Viola.
The Reason to Lead In Liberia
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Rees explained why she chose to work with women in Liberia. “Women and children pay a higher price because they are typically more marginalized,” Rees told The Borgen Project. “They are pressured by society…sometimes by their parents to sell the one thing that always sells, which is themselves sexually.”
Unfortunately, sex trafficking and child bride rates in Liberia support Rees’s claims. Sex trafficking victims consist of daughters whose parents encourage them to turn commercial sex into a steady income. In other cases, traffickers often trick parents into releasing their children in hopes of a better future. In addition to sex trafficking, 36% of Liberian girls marry before their 18th birthday, allowing Liberia to have the 20th highest prevalence of child marriages globally.
Sadly, these marriages lead to more abuse as 60% of Liberian women between ages 15-49 have fallen victim to physical violence and 9% to sexual abuse. Only 42% of women sought help and possibly even fewer received aid.
Lydia House International
Lydia House International operates primarily in Bong County outside of Gbarnga. It partners with local leaders both in and outside Bong County and this fuels Lydia House International’s methodology: in response to the financial needs of local leaders battling human trafficking and domestic violence against women, Lydia House International supports them and provides funding.
The organization mainly operates around its three programs: Speak Out, Rise Up, Lead On. Each program works to encourage, heal and train young Liberian women.
Lydia House International formed Speak Out, a sexual gender-based violence prevention guide with a curriculum specifically designed for West African experiences. The program includes pamphlets and seminars informing communities on examples of sexual harassment, the trauma and mental needs of abuse survivors, the myths and facts about sexual assault and ways to report abuse and harassment.
Often, ignorance plays a determining role in the sexual exploitation of a Liberian woman and how she recovers. Lydia House International wants to eradicate this ignorance. The educational program also brought significant awareness of the signs of a victim and a sexual predator. In response, a few workplaces enforced strict sexual harassment prevention policies.
The program, above all, gives a voice to sexual abuse victims. When asked about the importance of the Speak Out programs, Rees explained how the girls are always told to be quiet to protect their families. “It’s all about teaching people that they have the right to speak out when this happens and they don’t have to be silent.”
In collaboration with Trees of Hope, an organization helping abuse victims, Lydia House provides a sexual abuse recovery program in Liberia. Adapted for West African women, the curriculum called Thorn provides tools and resources to help women mentally recover from the trauma of their past.
Areas of poverty often ignore mental health, however, Lydia House International desires to validate the pain and experiences of each victim so she can move forward and rise up. Gbarnga will be the first to teach the specially-designed curriculum. Afterward, Lydia House International will donate the curriculum to other programs in West Africa.
Lydia House International currently prepares for the opening of Lydia House, a free, woman-led, woman-staffed home where young ladies can heal from abusive trauma and receive vocational training so they can leave the home self-sufficient. Recently, Lydia House International started construction on their 60-bed home on a two-acre compound with a security wall. The women’s home will also host children as the organization predicts that some women admitted into the house will have dependent children.
Lead On also includes a mentorship program where women living in the home mentor girls in the local school, teaching them about women’s rights and the importance of consent. Rees and her partners predict that the house will create a “self-perpetuating cycle” where women who heal from abuse become self-sufficient and then mentor Liberian girls by reminding them of their worth.
“The more women and their children that we are able to put into the community as working independent leaders, the more the people in the community will view women as independent leaders,” Rees explains. “Young girls in the community will look up to them…so that’s our goal.”
The First Girl
Rees shared a testimony about a young lady, no older than 18, named Rebecca who came to the organization’s administration building during its construction. A boy physically assaulted the young lady in the marketplace in broad daylight with apathetic bystanders failing to assist her. Rebecca was eight months pregnant but lost the baby. After her trip to the hospital and the police, no justice came despite the 100 people who witnessed it. When Rebecca visited the unfinished administration building, she bore physical lacerations and bruises all over her face and body.
Rebecca sought the organization for help. Moved by her story, the organization, still in its early phase of development, hired her to cook lunch for the construction workers working on the Lydia House building. Later, the organization raised enough money to send Rebecca back to school, since she’d only finished the seventh grade. Through the years, people in the community labeled Rebecca as “the first girl,” meaning she was the first girl the organization helped. The change in Rebecca’s life motivates Rees as she’s seen the transformation in Rebecca’s life. “She was happy and her face was so bright,” Rees said. “She was like a completely different person.”
The road to recovery is difficult, but organizations like Lydia House International never hesitate to carry others along the way. The organization continues to uplift Liberian women who suffer most at the hands of poverty because, as Rese said, “if you empower and educate young women and help them become leaders, you change the whole nation.”
– Blanly Rodriguez