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Media Development

Liberia: "As a woman you have to fight hard to be taken seriously"

Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first elected female head of state in Africa. But as Wade C.L. Williams' award-winning report has shown, the harsh living conditions for Liberian women have not changed.

Wade C.L. Williams has reached the top of the journalism ladder in her native Liberia - a rare achievement in a field that is often closed to women and is frequently dangerous. As an investigative reporter, she also heads the newsroom at FrontPage Africa, a newspaper and website based in the capital Monrovia. Williams' dedication and courage have brought her renown. She has received numerous awards, including the 2013 German Development Media Award. Her work has also been reprinted in the British Guardian and other international publications.

Her winning African entry for the German Development Media Award details the crushing poverty many women and girls still experience in Liberia even though many promises have been made about improving female lives. Her report, "Still a Hard Life", recounts the struggles of Mercy Womeh, a teenager who breaks rocks in order to pay for her school fees. It is one of the few opportunities to earn money in a country where 85 percent of the population is unemployed and despite the fact that Liberia has a national economic growth rate of almost nine percent.

Liberian Woman crushing rocks (photo: Wade C.L. Williams).

Liberian teenager Mercy Womeh breaks rocks in order to pay for her school fees

What prompted you to research the conditions of poor women and girls in Liberia?
Wade C.L. Williams: It was the level of poverty in Liberia that prompted me to research women's issues. The resilience I saw in these women surprised me - the fact that they didn't wait for the government to provide for them, but took matters into their own hands and found ways to generate income for themselves. This was a huge motivation to tell their stories.

How did people in Liberia react to your report?
People were shocked to learn that a young girl of Mercy's age did what she did to help fend for her family. Profiling Mercy was a way of telling the world how difficult life still is for many women and young girls because of poverty and despite the fact that Liberia has a woman president. In order to complete her high school education, Mercy still crushes rocks every day. After the story was published Mercy was able to get some financial assistance from people and these individuals are still helping her to fund her education.

Wade C.L. Williams, finalist of German development media award (photo: Thomas Ecke).

Wade C.L. Williams heads the newsroom at FrontPage Africa

What is it like to be a female reporter in Liberia? Is it different compared to your male colleagues?
Liberian society is dominated by men and so is the media sector. As a woman you have to fight hard to be taken seriously. There is also the issue of sexual harassment where the men you work with want to sleep with you and so do the men you interview.

On Reporters without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, Liberia is ranked 97th out of 179 countries. What are the working conditions like for journalists there?
They are deplorable. Reporters are underpaid and lack the necessary equipment they need to work properly. As far as press freedom is concerned, if you compare it to the past, I would say Liberia has a relatively favorable working environment for journalists. There is much mistrust between the government and the media about freedom issues, but overall, you can report critically without being immediately killed. However, you can still quickly be charged with sedition or libel. These days, public officials have taken numerous journalists to court and we've seen a lot of libel cases, even though there are no specific laws regarding these issues.

Wade C.L. Williams at the award ceremony, German development media award (photo: Thomas Ecke).

Wade C.L. Williams receives the German Development Media Award 2013 in Berlin

What does an international award like the German Development Media Award mean to you?
It means a lot and further motivates me. It has added so much prestige to the work I do and has also helped boost the level of credibility I have at home.

What are your future goals as a journalist?
I want to continue working as a journalist in Liberia but to also raise it to another level. If you ask me about my top priority, I would say it is to get a scholarship to study abroad, and then to come back home and start my own venture where most of the best reporters would be women.