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Unnatural Disasters

February 4, 2010

In the last few weeks, the attention, energy, and money of the international development community has been rightfully focused on the tragedy unfolding in Haiti.  Like a lot of people, I read obsessively about the unimaginable catastrophes being played out in the decimated neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, and donated what I could to Mercy Corps. 

After the initial scramble to assess the damage and provide immediate relief to survivors, some of the conversation has turned to the role that poverty played in magnifying the impact of the earthquake. In 1989, San Francisco experienced a 7.0 magnitude quake, and 63 people died.  The similar quake that hit Haiti earlier this month crushed poorly-constructed buildings, paralized the already-marginal public sector, and killed at least 150,000 people. This is the unnatural face of natural disasters in the developing world. 

When I was working in Liberia this past fall, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the organization run by our consultant in Monrovia, Hawa Bropleh. The Centre for Liberian Assistance (CLA) works on behalf of  girls and women, running a safe house for 15 teenage girls and offering sexual and reproductive health education to over 200 more.  Hawa also works with Liberian Muslim women on livelihood and girls’ education issues. 

Muslim girls who receive CLA scholarships

 During our visit to the CLA, we sat in on a sexual and reproductive health class, watched a play that the girls had written on child rape, and ate bread that they baked in outdoor ovens as part of a skill-building project.  The girls who live in the safe home and come to its weekly classes are some of the lucky few: child rape and abuse is truly epidemic in Liberia, and there are only three safe home programs in the entire country.   

Hawa demonstrating how to use a condom

One of the girls recounted how after she had been raped by her uncle, her parents forbade her from going to the police to avoid bringing shame on her family. Traumatized and with nowhere to turn, she could have become just another one of the girls who huddle together on the corners in Monrovia at night, selling the only thing they have. Instead, she found her way to the CLA and is attending school and working as a peer educator.  

I relate Haiti to Liberia not because of some of the obvious historical parallels, but rather to draw attention to the fact that when major natural disasters draw the attention and funding of the international community, they pull it away from the more quotidien tragedies unfolding elsewhere in the world.  If you’re like me and usually delete the daily appeals for donations from Mercy Corps, MoveOn, et al without reading them, I urge you to pause and think about supporting the CLA. 

The CLA has received small grants from the Global Fund for Women and ChildFund, but money to cover daily necessities for the girls living in the safe home is hard to find. They hold classes outside under a thatched canopy, go without running water, and ration toilet paper. Because of lack of funds, this year the CLA had to drastically cut back its funding of girls’ school scholarships. Grassroots programs like Hawa’s represent the most effective ways to actually rebuild a country, and yet they are often passed over by funders in favor of proven grantees and large international NGOs.  Any money you give to the CLA goes directly towards girls’ education and skill development. In a nation where 80% of people aren’t able to read, and the average age of a rape victim is under 10 years old, it’s hard to know where to start or how to really help. Supporting the work Hawa does is a great  way to help build solutions to the unnatural disasters that unfold every day in Liberia. 

If you’re able to make a donation, please send a check or cash to my attention, c/o the Public Health Institute, 555 12th st., 10th floor, Oakland, CA  94702. I will be pooling donations and wiring them to the CLA next month.  Thank you for considering this worthy cause!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. maggie permalink
    February 5, 2010 1:21 am

    Thanks for the info on CLA, Emily. Sounds like meaningful work and with peer educators, even a sustainable effort.

    In response to your thoughts on the Haitian situation, here’s an excellent article on the media’s [mis]handling of Haiti:

  2. Deb Lira permalink
    February 9, 2010 8:12 pm

    Your work sounds so meaningful!

    May I suggest that you set-up (if you haven’t already) a credit card account so people can make donations on their card. A bit easier now than checks!

    I have just begun an online TESOL certification course – for my next incarnation!



  3. Emily permalink*
    March 9, 2010 7:23 pm

    Thanks, Maggie and Debby!

    And I should correct myself, Liberia’s literacy rate has apparently improved to 55%. Still, a long way to go…

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