5 October 2015

Liberia: More Than Me - Zero Tolerance for Sexual Abuse

Rape and sexual exploitation of girls is an epidemic in Liberia. Liberia's President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has denounced the scourge of child rape, calling it one of Liberia's "biggest challenges." While taboo to discuss and even more taboo to report, sexual exploitation of children, especially girls, in exchange for grades is widely acknowledged in private to happen regularly at schools throughout Liberia. More Than Me (MTM) is one of few schools to publicly report this issue.

The More Than Me Academy is accredited by the Ministry of Education (MoE) as a private school providing free education to the most vulnerable girls in West Point and Central Monrovia aged 5-16 in grades K-6. Each student is also provided with a uniform, back pack, two meals a day, a social work team which makes regular visits to students' homes and provides daily support, a clinic and nurse that provide medical care and monitoring for girls and staff, sexual and reproductive health training, parent trainings to improve student/teacher relationships, an active PTA, and a commitment to support girls when they graduate from MTM through the 12th grade.

In June 2014, More Than Me discovered that a staff member who served as a liaison to the West Point community, Macintosh Johnson, was allegedly sexually abusing girls. Disgusted by the betrayal and urgently trying to protect the girls, More Than Me refused to remain quiet and reported his crime. Within two days, he was under arrest. This past week, his trial began.

More Than Me has since made strict changes in its staff and child protection policies to ensure the safety of its students.

Rape only became illegal on the national level in 2006. Liberia's law classifies rape as intentional penetration of a penis, another body part, or an object into the vagina or anus of another person, without that person's consent, or sexual intercourse between a person who is over 18 years of age and a person who is not yet 18 years of age, even if the younger person agreed to the act or was not forced into it. The punishment is life imprisonment, though it is rarely enforced. Sixty-five percent of the 1,002 cases reported in 2013 concerned victims aged between three and 14, yet just 137 cases came to court and only 49 rapists were convicted.

These staggering statistics are the very reason More Than Me was founded. Several years ago, Katie Meyler, founder of More Than Me, met an 11-year-old girl in downtown Monrovia who said she was forced to give oral sex for clean drinking water. She introduced Katie to her friends who were in the same dire situation, forced by poverty to exchange sexual favors for basic needs. These girls asked Katie to help them go to school. Katie helped, and soon seven girls turned into 30, and more funding was required to keep the help coming. So Katie registered as an official nonprofit in the US and Liberia in 2009 called More Than Me and opened an Academy in 2013. She named the organization More Than Me because she knew she could not do this on her own. To create real change for these girls, she would need everyone to help.

From its inception, MTM worked closely with the West Point Women for Health and Development to identify vulnerable girls to join their program. MTM was also introduced to West Point community leader, Johnson, who came with very high recommendations from well-known NGO's that he had worked with in the past. His previous experience and training revolved around working with vulnerable children. MTM hired Johnson as Program Coordinator with his main role being community liaison to West Point. The allegations against Johnson would turn out to be the very monster MTM was attempting to protect the girls from; he masterfully lied to everyone to gain their trust and betrayed that trust when he was accused of sexual abuse and manipulation.

A recent study funded by MTM has early indications that when comparing the MTM Academy to the 25 primary schools in West Point (one public, 24 private) only one school reported providing nursing services and only one school reported providing reproductive, health-related counseling.

It is because of the safe space and counseling services the MTM Academy provides its students that a student felt comfortable coming forward with allegations of abuse. MTM believes that if more schools focused on creating a safe space for children to share potential abusive situations, this would make a huge difference in lowering gendered violence occurring in schools.

Since the allegations surfaced, MTM has instituted a more strict code of conduct and child protection policy, and increased staff training. MTM has made efforts to hire qualified female teachers as much as possible, as they interact with students the most. MTM monitors all staff, regardless of gender, to ensure there is no abuse of any kind. MTM also added female security guards to its campus during school days to monitor hallways and classrooms during the day, and conducted a Gender Based Violence workshop for teachers to further educate them so that they can disseminate accurate information to students.

MTM believes that policy and action must go hand-in-hand to prevent abuse: no female student will ever be alone in a classroom with a male (one-on-one); a female staff member must always be on campus when students are present; no student will be alone in a More Than Me vehicle without a female staff member; every staff member must read and sign the Code of Conduct when onboarding and when renewing their contracts; and a whistleblower policy that demands that if anyone sees or hears of someone breaking the code of conduct, they must report it immediately to the Country Director or Manager. Additionally, More Than Me refers to the case as an example of and reminder to staff members that it has a zero tolerance policy towards anyone who harms its students in any way.

Child protection remains at the forefront of MTM's current work and will be a pillar of its future work alongside the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education has asked MTM to help rebuild the education system by focusing on the following pillars: infrastructure, WASH, accountability and child protection policies, teacher and administrative training, school feeding, health, family planning, social work programs, parent training, and community engagement.

In its first year of existence, the MTM Academy has already had to deal with ingrained social practices that harm students and debilitate Liberia's education system. If MTM can assist the Ministry of Education in creating more safe spaces for children to report abuse and train school staff to report crimes to the police, that may be the first step towards positive change that Liberia needs.


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