On 6 July, five new members of JRS Liberia arrived at Monrovia's Roberts International Airport to begin working at several new project sites. The new arrivals included two Franciscan sisters, one from Pakistan and the other from the Philippines, a priest-missionary of the Divine Word also from the Philippines, and two Jesuit scholastics, one from Zimbabwe and one from Spain. They join a veteran team of nine staff members, who have been in Liberia since 2002.
In addition to its programmes at the refugee camps near Salala and Montserrado, JRS will now begin working in Lofa, Bomi and Nimba counties to help the returning population rebuild their lives. The programmes include: distribution of food and school supplies, reconstruction of school buildings, educational instruction and health projects. Liberians are recovering from a 14-year civil war, which ended with the departure of former president, Charles Taylor, to Nigeria in August 2003.
"The cultural diversity and professional experience of our team has opened up more opportunities to serve the Liberians as they try to put their lives back together", Alberto Plaza SJ, JRS Liberia Director, enthusiastically told Dispatches.
The JRS Liberia staff are currently attending a week-long retreat and team-building workshop.
In neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, JRS has taken on a vocational training project in the mountainous village-town of Man. In partnership with the Sisters of St. Theresa of Jesus, JRS will provide practical training to 150 young girls and support their participation in JRS income-generating activities at the Foyer Notre-Dame.
The girls, a significant portion of whom are single mothers, are victims of the civil war that has divided Côte d'Ivoire since 2002. The crippled economy, the displacement of families and the general insecurity, have created an environment where exploitation of girls is normal. Stories of rape, forced prostitution and abandonment by their families are common, even for girls as young as 14 years of age. The Foyer Notre-Dame offers them classes in cooking, baking, sewing and hair-styling, as well as literacy and mathematics.
JRS is currently re-evaluating its "AIDS Awareness and Accompaniment" programme in central Côte d'Ivoire which it expects to expand later this year. There has been a disturbing rise in the number of HIV-positive cases, especially among young women, the area around the Ivorian town of Bouaké.
"By looking for ways to act now on behalf of these girls, we are trying to avoid the real crisis that Côte d'Ivoire will suffer if the AIDS epidemic continues to grow" said Mateo Aguirre SJ, JRS West Africa Director.
According to estimates from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization published in 2004, 5-10% of the adult population of Côte d'Ivoire are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus, and median estimates suggest that 40,000 children are infected.
JRS has been in the West Africa region since 2001, when it began working in Guinea to resettle persons displaced by violence in that country. Since then its presence has grown in response to the needs created by political instability and military conflicts in the region.
Cautious optimism has been growing following reports of progress in achieving stability in this region. On 1 July the United Nations Security Council approved the withdrawal of the 3,400 UN peacekeeping troops remaining in Sierra Leone by the end of 2005. In Liberia preparations are underway for presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for the 11 October. The conclusion of talks between the armed parties in Côte d'Ivoire has produced a revised disarmament deadline for 3 October, 2005, in preparation for presidential elections on 30 October.
However, reports suggest there is wide scepticism that the region's leaders lack the political will to complete the necessary reforms, which may delay the current timetables and stall a return to peace.