Liberia: We are like a bundle of sticks [16 Days]

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From November 25 to December 10, the International Rescue Committee is observing the "16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence."

Guest blogger Esther Karnley is advocacy manager of the IRC's gender-based violence program in Liberia. She is based in Monrovia.

Liberia, my country, has just come out of a tumultuous period of war. Young girls were taken as "wives" by fighters during the civil conflict, which officially ended in 2003. Fearing what would happen if they deserted - and with little or no education, skills or support - these kidnapped children were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. They suffered widespread sexual violence at the hands of all factions of the fighting forces.

While working for a medical organization that provided health services to refugees, I saw women and girls displaced by the war and living in camps selling their bodies in exchange for the basic necessities of food and shelter. I became passionate about helping to improve the lives of these women and girls.

In 2003, I heard the International Rescue Committee was assisting survivors of sexual violence though its gender-based violence program. I thought, "this is my opportunity."

Two weeks after starting my new job as an IRC social worker, I met an eight-year-old girl who was gang raped by seven men, which left her with severe health consequences - vesicovaginal fistula, or VVF. VVF is a tear between the vagina and the bladder that results in the involuntary discharge of urine. These cruel men did this to her because of their selfish desires and misuse of power. I had series of nightmares with the voice of that little girl saying to me "Aunty, the seven men do bad, bad thing to me." ("Aunty" is what young women call older women here in Liberia.)

I didn't have peace of mind until the girl underwent surgery to repair the fistula. I accompanied her to the hospital along with her relatives. We had to stop several times en route to allow this child to change her clothing because she was leaking urine.

From that point there was no turning back. I told myself I must do everything to ensure that women and girls know their rights - and commit myself to ensuring these rights are respected at all levels. Today I am the advocacy manager for the IRC's gender-based violence program in Liberia. I work closely with government agencies, national and international non-governmental organizations, and community leaders to draw attention to women's rights and the violence that is and has been perpetrated against them.

Unfortunately, the cycle of deprivation and marginalization continues even in peacetime. Even now women and girls remain highly vulnerable to gender-based violence. But I feel happy about the positive impact the program is having on women and girls in the communities where the IRC works. Women now know their rights and are able to express the importance of these rights - which was not so in the past. They have learned their potential and the strength that comes from supporting each other as a group.

I think this lesson is beautifully illustrated by the parable shared by one member of an IRC-supported women's group. "We are like a bundle of sticks," she said. "When tied together we cannot be broken easily. But when untied and scattered, one of the sticks can be broken very easily."