Ten men from 10 communities sit in a circle discussing the lists they have just made: privileges and limitations for men and women. The lists are clearly out of balance.
Fourteen privileges listed for men; four for women. Three limitations for men; ten for women.
One participant raises his hand to add another ‘privilege’ to the men’s list: they can beat their wives.
The training facilitator, Albert Bundoo thinks this is worth discussing.
One man thinks that women have recourse if they are beaten, but Albert says, 'Let’s be realistic. In your community what happens when a man beats his wife?'
There’s a pause, and finally someone says, 'Nothing.'
Albert continues. 'What can we do to end violence against women and girls, and create a community where women and girls have access to equal opportunity and choices?'
After several men respond, one says, 'First I have to change myself and the perception I have against women. From there I should begin to talk to others on how they can change.'
Empowering women and girls
It’s the first session for these men, each in some level of leadership, who have been chosen from their communities to participate in training on ending violence against women and girls.
Each will return to their community to start more men’s groups training them on women’s rights and protection issues.
It’s part of a larger programme in Lofa County, Liberia called ‘Advancing Adolescent Girls’ and initiated by Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
The project, successfully completed in three other Liberian counties, addresses the issues of adolescent girls in Liberia who are the most vulnerable to human rights violations and gender inequality.
Sexual abuse, domestic violence, exploitation, very limited educational opportunities, early marriage and teenage pregnancy are prevalent.
DRC’s Advancing Adolescent Girls program addresses these issues through back-to-school programs, literacy classes for older students, self-defence, building youth centres for girls, gender equality training and leadership training.
The purpose of the program is to help produce a generation of girls that has grown up in safety, has access to education and social resources, and has their own voice and standing in their communities.
You can empower all you want, but you need the backing of the whole community
But DRC recognises that men’s attitudes toward women are an enormous part of the issue.
'One of the best ways to promote community-wide change and awareness for women’s rights is to make sure that there’s a strong men’s support to back them,' explains Brian Brady, DRC Program Manager in Lofa County.
'You have to tackle both sides. You can empower all you want, but you need the backing of the whole community.'
SOAP, a local NGO, implements this part of the DRC program, specialising in behaviour change interventions in rural communities.
Using trained facilitators, the men are engaged in deep-rooted questions on gender roles and norms using discussion, self-exploration, and exercises that often reveal what they might not want to admit – that they must personally change before they can expect to change the attitudes of men in their communities.
Later, a thought struck thirty-three year old William Bayron and he said to the trainers, 'DRC is asking us to change ourselves before we change the community. I see myself in this. It’s very difficult to change. To teach a monkey a new trick is very hard. It’s not easy.'
In the counties where the program had previously been implemented, the Male Engagement sessions helped to dispel initial resentment to the Advancing Adolescent Girls project.
The intervention appeared to be a huge success with requests from male graduates, their wives, and neighbouring communities for extension of the program.
'First I have to change myself and the perception I have against women. From there I should begin to talk to others on how they can change'
'We had many reports coming back that the men were actually fighting for this,' Brian says. 'There was less conflict in the household, and more understanding with their daughters and their wives. I think it takes a little bit to pull them along, but once they get there, they realise the benefit.'
Begin with me
Received by the communities with open arms, the Advancing Adolescent Girls project’s first year of implementation was an overall success with high attendance rates and community buy-in.
Although behaviour change is a long and hard road to walk, DRC has seen some huge improvements in a short amount of time, and the men have become agents of change.
Back at the training session, the discussion turns to giving women the opportunity for leadership with Albert Bundoo leading the men in the search for a solution.
'But if you nominate a woman,' one man points out, 'she will decline, and it will take time to convince the people.'
Albert answers with a question. 'Why do you think women are drawing back? Remember the other exercise we did? Nobody cares for your view. Nobody knows your potential. If a woman has all these limitations, do you think she’s able to maximise her potential in life? So even if she had great ideas, would she be able to bring it forth.
She’s not allowed in leadership, even if she has the potential to lead. See what limitation can do? It doesn’t allow you to see the good things in them.
'Will you give women a chance in a position of leadership?' Albert asks the group. They respond with a resounding 'Yes!' Then he asks the key question. 'It starts with who?' 'Me,' they reply. 'Yes,' Albert says. 'It begins with me. It begins with you.'
As with most places on the far edges of Liberia, getting to and from the capital by road is long and painful on dirt roads that turn to mud in the rainy season.
Brian, who must travel between the cities regularly, says, “I take MAF whenever I can because it’s much more convenient, direct from Monrovia to Foya. I took the road once. I made it in one day, but that was in the dry season. Have you been up here in the rainy season? I’m not kidding when I say there’s mud higher than the car. And even sometimes the main road from here to Voinjama is almost impassable.”
The MAF flight, by comparison, takes only one hour and Lofa County is included as one of the MAF northern shuttles.