24 October 2018

Liberia: Dear White Saviors, Your Time Is Up

Photo: Liberian Observer
Facia Harris, the spokesperson of the group in a petition to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Gender and other government agencies, said they were deeply troubled by the ProPublica report released on October 11, detailing the incidents of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation of the Liberian girls under the care of the More Than Me Academy.
opinion

Naomi Tulay-Solanke is the Founder and Executive Director of Community Health Initiative (CHI), a non-governmental organization in Liberia

It took me several days to read and watch ProPublica and Time Magazine's investigation of More Than Me, a chain of schools in Liberia that claimed to be protecting vulnerable girls from abuse but, in truth, was exposing them to rape.

I struggled to read the report. Sometimes I wondered how many times one of those girls screamed for her life and nobody was there to help. Their stories resonated with me so deeply, because there were days when I couldn't explain to my family that I was molested as a girl. I had to bottle it in because I feared they wouldn't believe me. So I can imagine the struggles that these girls went through. Through her negligence, Katie Meyler, the celebrated American "do-gooder" who has now temporarily stepped down as More Than Me's CEO, took those girls from a place of nothing to a place of nothingness.

Many of us in Liberia knew about this child sexual abuse scandal for four years, but it took a team of foreign journalists for authorities to take it seriously. Why wasn't it enough when 10 girls came out to say they had been molested at school, when four of them tested positive for HIV, and when one of them became pregnant by her molester?

Now that the case is public, how can Liberia prevent something like this from ever happening again? How can we make sure people like Katie Meyler never again build spaces that leave girls vulnerable to abuse? To move forward, I believe my country needs to focus on three things: we must better support community-led efforts, strengthen our laws regarding rape and child abuse, and build more checks on "white saviors."

When it comes to NGOs that work with marginalized communities, I'm a big supporter of localization. By localization, I mean giving support and directing resources to people doing good work at the community level who know the issues personally and what it takes to solve them. I believe we could have likely avoided the tragedy that took place at the More Than Me school if the people running it came from the same community.

Meyler is not accused of molesting these girls herself. But it's the system she created that enabled these crimes. She spent about 10 months each year outside Liberia, traveling the world, raising millions of dollars on behalf of Liberian girls, while she put Macintosh Johnson in charge, a sexual predator who never had a thorough background check -- and who at one time was her boyfriend. West Point, the slum in Monrovia where she worked, is an impoverished area. And when people see a white woman walking into this community, associating with this black guy, that alone is a deterrent to any minor who wants to speak out and say, "This is the guy who molested me."

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I can't help but wonder: what would have happened if the founder of the school were from West Point and personally knew the children and their parents? I believe that if Meyler were a local, it would have been easier for parents to report Johnson and the school to the authorities.

I also believe the abuse and exploitation that took place at the More Than Me school could have been prevented if we had stronger laws against rape and abuse. People in Liberia are educated in how to report rape cases -- but reporting is not enough. We still have not passed a comprehensive rape law, so we are left with laws that don't adequately protect girls and prosecute their abusers. Our legislators must pass a comprehensive rape law now.

Along with stronger anti-rape legislation, we need to do a better job of vetting the people we allow to work with our most vulnerable girls. Aside from never conducting a thorough background check on Johnson, did anyone ever vet Meyler herself? Why was a relatively young foreigner with little experience in education allowed to set up schools for vulnerable girls? And since she lacked the experience, why didn't Meyler hire a local team of qualified Liberians with backgrounds in education and gender issues?

Meyler has temporarily resigned from her position as the CEO of More Than Me. But that is not enough. She needs to resign fully. The charity board's chairman, Skip Borghese resigned, but the entire board needs to resign because they too compromised those girls. We need a thorough investigation from the government that will serve as a deterrent to other NGOs that don't have strong anti-abuse policies at their facilities. And for those NGOs that do have sexual exploitation and abuse policies in place, we need an oversight committee that makes sure they are enforcing those policies.

Another question I have been asking myself: Why did Meyler choose West Point? And why her? What made her qualified to open a chain of schools in my country? Unlike many Liberian women working to help young girls, Meyler has benefited directly from a "white savior" complex, a belief that not only allowed her to think she was saving the girls of Liberia but that also led many residents of West Point to believe that Meyler was their savior. This is a long-existing mentality that we, as Liberians and Africans, need to guard against.

While Meyler was being celebrated with an invitation to the White House by President Obama and garnering praise from the likes of Bono and Bill Gates, there were countless Liberian women like myself who have been working in the poorest parts of Liberia. While Meyler was getting Time Magazine's Person of the Year honors for her work in the 2014 Ebola crisis in my country, I too was working to save lives -- while pregnant, I might add. But, because I was a "local" woman, no one applauded me for doing exactly the same work that Meyler did. This is one of the many ways white savior complex works.

Girls were being molested night and day in her school, and nobody interrogated her. The big picture was that Meyler was building a school with good intentions, and girls were benefiting--even when everyone knew they were being hurt.

There are so many things about the More Than Me abuse scandal that make me wonder why people didn't act sooner. Why didn't the government stand up for those girls? Why didn't the local press act on the accusations and rumors that swirled around Johnson for years? And why did it take four years and a team of international journalists to bring this story to light?

Ultimately, what happened at that school is on all of us. The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection failed those girls. The Ministry of Education failed them as well. To the contrary, Liberia's Ministry of Education continued to support Meyler when they knew very well that she was under investigation, allowing her to expand her education program to nine new schools.

Rightly, the outrage is currently focused on the crimes that were committed. But we must not forget to do all we can to support the girls who will continue to suffer from the trauma of abuse for many years to come. The people of West Point need to come together and stand up for their own community -- because Katie Meyler didn't.

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