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'Still a hard life'

Wade Williams, Monrovia
August 16, 2013

As unemployment is high in post-war Liberia, crushing rocks is the only option for many women to make ends meet. The stones are being used in Liberia's booming construction sector, but profits are hardly trickling down.

Liberian Woman crushing rocks (photo: ANDREW ESIEBO)
Image: Andrew Esiebo

Mercy Womeh sits under the burning afternoon sun next to a mountain of rocks known as the 'Rock Hole' on the GSA Road on the outskirts of Monrovia, capital of the tiny West African state of Liberia. She has a scarf tied around her head to protect her from the harsh rays and holds a hammer in her hand, ready to break rocks.

Mercy is 18 years old and attends the 7th grade of J. Chauncey Goodridge School. Like many young Liberians, she missed several years of education during the country's devastating 14-year civil war and the ensuing poverty, and is still catching up.

Determined to finish her last years of high school, she crushes rocks to pay for her school fees, earning 35 Liberian dollars ($0.47; 0.34 euro cents) per bucket. On good days she fills seven buckets. Her family - her mother, father and brother - live in a poor suburb called Gbawe Town on the outskirts of the city. The roads are terrible, there is no electricity.

High unemployment rates

Three years ago, Mercy's parents moved from Nimba County, around 350 kilometers (218 miles) inland, to find work so that their children could go to a private school. In a country with 85 percent unemployment, crushing rocks was their only option.

"I'm doing this because I don't have any other work to do to sustain myself. It is through this rock; I crush it and sell it to get money," Mercy said. She pays school fees once she gets paid for her work. The rest of the money is spent on food.

The stones are being used by Liberia's booming post-war construction industry, but little of that growth trickles down. Liberia is expected to have a growth rate of 8.9 percent this year, according to the African Economic Outlook, boosted by a rise in commodity prices, particularly rubber, palm oil and minerals, at a time when many European economies are stagnating or even in recession.

Government revenue has grown by 400 percent. But eight out of 10 Liberians still live on less than 1.25 US dollars (0.94 euros) a day according to the World Bank.

Mercy is one of many Liberian women who live at the bottom of the societal chain. Despite the fact Liberia has a female president, heralded for promoting women's rights and welfare, life for women is particularly hard.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf stands at a ceremony to mark her second presidential inauguration at the Capitol in Monrovia January 16, 2012. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hasn't done much to improve the rights of ordinary women in LiberiaImage: Reuters

For Musu Cole, 55, who also works in Rock Hole, “women's empowerment” is an empty phrase. The mother of four has been crushing rocks for five years now.

The wrinkles on her face make her look much older than her age. Like many Liberian women who lost their husbands in the war, Cole supports her family by herself. The women's movement has not had a significant impact on her life.

No other option

“This is a very hard work, but we have nothing else to do and there has been no help from anywhere,” she said. “I have no one to help me, I have no man. My six grandchildren and I live in a single room with my old mother."

“I'm just bursting this rock for my children to be able to eat and for me to send them to school. This work is too hard, sometimes it makes you sick.”

Mercy, on the other hand, has her life ahead of her and believes the government will help her make something of it. “Someday I would like to go to college, leave the rock crushing business and do a more sustainable kind of business, like petty trading, so I can own my own business,” she said. “I don't want to crush rocks forever, so I pray that God will hear my prayer and grant my wish.”

Mercy did not go to school often when they lived in the village as the teachers often didn't turn up. More often she helped her parents drive the birds from their rice crop and beat the rice when it was harvested.

The literacy rate for rural women is at just 26 percent, compared with 61 percent for urban women, and 60 percent and 86 percent for rural and urban men, respectively, according to Liberia's Ministry for Gender and Development. In addition, 42 percent of women have never been to school, compared with 18 percent of men.

Wade Williams (right) interviewing a woman (photo: Glenna Gordon)
Image: Glenna Gordon

Education may now be free and compulsory - undoubtedly a crucial first step - but teachers are hard to find, classes overcrowded and many children like Mercy still have to earn money to support their families.

This report is a shortened version of Wade Williams' award-winning article for the German Development Media Awards for the category Africa. Williams is an investigative reporter based in Liberia's capital Monrovia, working for the newspaper and website FrontPageAfrica.

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