and photos by Peter Biro
Monrovia, Liberia - 4 Apr 2011 It is midday in Red Light, a grim and poor suburb of Monrovia, the Liberian capital. People hurry back and forth with sacks of rice and bananas balancing on their heads. In the middle of a neighborhood consisting of simple clay dwellings, a large garbage dump is smoldering from burning trash. Nearby, traders have set up stalls and children play in the dusty road. In her recently opened hair salon, Saywon Tarlesson, 27, is seeing the first customer of the day.
"I have people waiting to have their hair braided," she says. "I'm very busy."
Two years ago, Saywon's life was very different. She lived in abject poverty with her mother while making less than $1 a day selling drinking water in Red Light's main market. Her family lived hand to mouth and food was scarce.
"I dreamt of becoming a hairdresser," Saywon says. "Whenever I had the time I used to sit in the local hair salons and watch the other girls work. I hoped that someday I could do the same."
In 2007, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) helped Saywon realize her dream. Under a special economic empowerment program the IRC selected some 350 poor and disadvantaged girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 27 to receive special training in business development and life skills such as conflict management, health awareness and decision making. The ultimate goal of the program, which is funded by the World Bank, the NIKE Foundation and the Danish government, was to help the girls learn a trade or start their own business.
"We teach them how to maintain a shop or service as well as skills such pricing techniques and bookkeeping," said Abu Macphearson, who directs the IRC program. "We also help the girls look after their health and maintain good family contacts, which is also an important part of the program."
Once the girls complete their training, the IRC puts them in touch with microfinance institutions which can help the girls obtain low-interest loans and establish small businesses. The loans are also used to buy seeds, soil and fertilizer and to rent space for businesses.
So far, all the program's graduates have gone on to start successful businesses, an achievement that is all the more remarkable given Liberia's dire poverty and the lack of opportunity for women.
"Most of these girls never earned their own money before," Mcphearson said. "Many were beggars or prostitutes. Now all of them run functioning businesses which is a big boost both to the economy and to their self esteem. This program is helping to break a cycle of poverty that has been going on for generations."
Mcphearson, who holds a degree in business law, became involved in the struggle to alleviate poverty in his country after his own father went bankrupt.
"After his business failed, I wanted to understand why and how I could help others avoid his fate. We are at a critical point in Liberia right now. Many need financial help and we can be part of making that happen."