President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will speak at the World Premiere of the video, "God First, Second the Market: The Story of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund of Liberia," Thursday, 23 August 2012, at Monrovia City Hall in Liberia. Funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the 19-minute video shows how Liberia's market women have inspired women from around the world to collaborate in rebuilding their lives.
Dr. Thelma Awori, Former Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP's Regional Bureau for Africa and Founding Chair and Co-President of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund-International, explains, "It's just been so encouraging to see how women in the United States and in Europe have given of themselves to support the women of Liberia, and the women of Liberia who are trying to support the economy and thereby support the President. So it's solidarity all around."
She went on to explain, "the objective of the video and companion case study by the same name is to identify the lessons learned and best practices of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund so that its model can be duplicated in other countries. The next phase of our proposal with UNDP is to conduct study tours for Liberian market women to other countries and have market women from other countries come to Liberia to learn about its practices."
The Sirleaf Market Women's Fund was founded in 2006 by a few women who had worked with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf when she worked for the UN Development Program. They wanted to celebrate her having become the first female Head of State in Africa and Liberia by finding a practical way to help rebuild the country. Given the pivotal role that market women played during Liberia's 14 years of war and subsequent creation of peace, the new President suggested that they help the market women. The independent organization was then named in her honor.
Lusu Sloan, President of the Liberian Marketing Association and Board Member of SMWF/Liberia, reminisced about the war, "During the war, people were depending on market women to really provide for them. They used to leave from here and go to the other area because they had the rebel area, they had the government area during the war and only market women were brave to go across (the areas) and buy food and bring it for their citizens to eat."
Pia Brown, Executive Director of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund, describes the market women of today, "You probably won't find a more resilient group of women than the market women in Liberia. They are mothers. They are grandmothers. They are farmers. They are businesswomen. There's really no age limit to being a market woman…
"…I went to one of the markets, the market in Saclapea. There's a market woman, I calculate that she's probably 90 to 92 years old. She is in there every day selling her greens. You look at her and you say, 'Why is she still doing this?' Well, she has to earn her livelihood. She has a family to support."
The goal of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund is to reconstruct or build 50 markets as well as provide literacy training, microfinance, day care facilities, potable water and waste management. Thirteen markets have been built so far from donations received from individuals and organizations like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Petro Trade, the NoVo Foundation, the Global Fund for Women and UN Women Fund for Gender Equality. UNDP provided funding for the initial survey of 83 markets across the country and for production of the case study and video.
Christina, a marketer from Paynesville Market, highlights the literacy programs provided by the SMWF, "First, the market women, it turned them to be literate women. When they go to the market, to the store to buy, they cheat them. But now they know how to read and write. When they go to the store, they will read the price. They will check their money and pay. When they came here, they couldn't even do a bank transaction. Now, they have their own bank account. They go to the bank and do their own transaction."
Housed in Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development at its inception, the office of SMWF is now located in a house in Monrovia with a full staff. Its Liberia-based civil society Board of Directors is chaired by Olivia Shannon, a journalist and TV presenter and retiree from UNHCR. Its International Board of Directors is based in New York City. The aim of both these bodies is to connect the organization to resources that improve the lives of market women. Its efforts to do so are collaborated with the SMWF International Advisory Committee that is co-chaired by former President of Ireland Mary Robinson and President of Malawi Joyce Banda, who recently succeeded the late Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai.
Through the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund, the visibility and voice of market women across Africa are taking hold. Thelma Awori provided an example: "This past July, Lusu Sloan and Korto Rogers were members of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund delegation that participated in the dialogue of the 20th Gender Is My Agenda pre-Summit of the African Union. The theme of this year's Summit meetings was Boosting Intra-African Trade. Lusu Sloan was the voice of market women to say that market women need warehousing at borders, security of their persons and goods at borders, better means of transport to move goods from one country to the next, and better roads. It took a market woman with the credibility of experience to say these things on a panel. The participation of the market women in that forum made history in Africa! Market women had never participated in a policy dialogue of that nature before. The SMWF shall ensure that the voices of market women continue to penetrate such fora."
She went on to say, "Subsequently, the SMWF delegation was invited to show the video and speak to the members of the Situation Room of the African Union's Peace and Security Division to discuss how market women can be included in the early warning system of the AU to anticipate conflict in countries around Africa. They asked to keep the video so that they can show it to their other colleagues and inform their AU office here in Monrovia to connect with the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund here."
As Rose Newman, a marketer at the Paynesville Market in Liberia, says, "My dream is big. My dream is not to only sit on the table. My dream is to travel and bring goods. Put it in the shop and people will become to come. Wholesale too and begin to sell. That's my dream."
To see the video, arrange for fundraising events, contribute or get a copy of the case study, please go to www.smwf.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.