Educating a Nation / by Morgana Wingard

“I had three boyfriends.”

Her response to the question ended with a girlish giggle and a slightly embarrassed grin.

“But now I have one,” Alice (pictured above) concluded with her chin slightly higher.

The unconventional answer made me chuckle too. I quickly learned it’s not a laughing matter. We were interviewing students of the EPAG (Economic Empowerment for Adolescent Girls and Young Women) program in Liberia and asking them how EPAG has transformed their lives for the short film above. “I had three boyfriends. Now I have one.” was a common response. Alice explained:

“I was having three boyfriends before, because why? I was not having the means of getting money, that’s the only way I could help my children and myself to get food money.”

Because Liberia battled through two civil wars over more than a decade, many children missed school and the few classes they could attend lacked proper supplies and teachers. The breach from normalcy also left a generational gap of qualified teachers to pick-up the pieces when the guns finally stopped firing. Today, many adolescent girls and young women lack the skills to support themselves so they fall back on the commodity they do have — their bodies.

Hon. Julia Duncan-Cassell, the Minister of Gender and Development of the Republic of Liberia, explains: “Coming from so many years of civil crisis where a lot of values in our system, in our homes was broken the girls were left to fend for themselves. So in order to survive, to be somebody they felt that one boyfriend was not enough. The felt that sex was the way of life.”

I for one believe in jobs as one of the best forms of sustainable development. EPAG IS doing just that by teaching job skills and business skills to nearly 3,500 young women between the ages of 16 to 24. Graduates from their classes acquire jobs at local restaurants and hotels or start their own businesses like selling fish, opening cool water stands, or building daycare centers for their community. Employment in participants has increased 47 percent and average weekly earnings have increased by 80 percent.

In Minister Cassell’s own words, “There is a common saying that if you educate a girl, or the girl child, you educate a nation.”