Naomi Tulay-Solanke on the impact of COVID-19 and Ebola on women in Liberia, and the fight to keep girls in school

Naomi is a Liberian feminist who works with underprivileged youths and slum dwellers in hard to reach communities in Liberia. She is a Harvard 2017 Human Rights Award recipient and a 2016 fellow of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit.  To address menstrual hygiene management affecting girls’ retention in schools and women empowerment, she launched the Pad4Girls project, producing locally made eco-friendly, reusable sanitary pads.

Liberia is a country that has experienced 14 years of civil war and crisis. Then afterwards, we elected our first female President [Ellen Sirleaf]. At that time, we thought that issues affecting women would be addressed because we were successful to have had the first female President elected.

The female President had been working in a system that was made by men, and was therefore very patriarchal. So having a woman as a leader, although positive, meant that she couldn’t change laws or policies. So again, we saw a lot of women be caught in the patriarchal system and trapped. The systemic inequality continued.

What has happened is that after she left power, we elected another President with female Vice President. Despite Vice Presidents not normally having a lot of decision-making power, we saw a beacon of hope for women. We were hopeful that women would be included in decision-making roles.

However, systemic inequality continues for women in power, even today and Liberia is a patriarchal society. Ellen Sirleaf tried, but she was trapped in a system that was made for men. She did do a lot, but she could’ve done a lot more than she did. She did try though. We need laws to ensure gender equality.

When it came to the Liberian peace process, so many women were involved. Two women peace activists involved in the Liberian peace process actually were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Women have been actively involved in peace and security for so many years. They play an important role in ensuring that the Liberian civil crisis came to an end, and have continued to play a role to ensure that the peace and security continues across Liberia.

The impacts of the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks on women

We all know when the pandemic happened, there was an increase of gender-based violence. At the peak of COVID-19, we had a spike in rape cases. The majority were young women and teenagers, and we were heartbroken. There was not a lot of political will to bring people to justice and address the issue.

Women in Liberia – a lot of young people -  took three days to protest on the streets and call on the government to declare rape a national emergency. We delivered petition to President. On the third day, we had teargassing and police trying to make us leave the streets.

This didn’t deter us. Many influential people came out in solidarity. Maybe as a knee-jerk reaction, the government declared rape a national emergency. They committed to addressing the issue, however we are yet to see this in practice. They prepared a roadmap in partnership with civil society to address sexual and gender-based violence. However, this is yet to be implemented.

The Ebola outbreak affected women in a big way, as a lot of Liberian women were caregivers. It’s a natural inclination for African women to be the caregivers in their home when their children and husbands are sick – they provide the care. So, they were the ones hit.

What affected them the most is that there were women that needed sanitary pads and mainly men were leading the response to the outbreak. It affected women’s’ livelihoods so greatly. Some of them were infected with the virus and were stigmatised by their communities. Many lost their husbands and their children.

Similar to the COVID-19 outbreak, a lot of women experienced domestic violence at the peak of the Ebola outbreak. Ebola had a far bigger impact, but what happened was that there was a lot of international support as it only affected a few countries. However, with COVID-19 it is an international problem. Liberia has gotten less attention over the COVID-19 outbreak.

The launch of the Community Healthcare Initiative

In 2014, the Community Healthcare Initiative was just starting to work and was new, so we didn’t really understand the context. We had a community-based approach, and trained community people and created awareness in various communities. Our Community Healthcare Initiative moved into response later-on. With COVID-19, we believe change is going to come with the community. Strengthening community healthcare is so important. Encouraging them to think about the awareness that they are creating on a community-level. This is so important because our healthcare systems are overrun. It also allows them to make informed decisions. We also work to simplify messages from government in terms of healthcare and COVID-19.

We started menstrual hygiene programming in 2016 after the Ebola outbreak. The girls’ participation in schools was so low. At first, we assumed that the girls didn’t want to come to school. But then it became consistent across all the communities we were working in. we realised that it was normalised that the girls don’t go to school because they are menstruating and don’t have access to sanitary pads and there are so many taboos and misconceptions.

A lot of myths around the menstrual cycle existed. We initially gave disposable pads to keep them in school and this worked. However, then they started running out of pads. So, we realised we needed something more sustainable. We started our Pad4Girls project, where we produced reusable pads. We train the women to make the pads so girls have access to them. With that, we felt like solving this at the community level is one, but we needed political will too.

We write to the Ministry and encourage them to make pads available in schools. Many were not aware that this is a natural process. And then, we partnered with a university in Spain, and we launched a project called Kolu’s Moon. We got in partnership with the university and worked on this book – it’s an educational tool that shows when girls are on their period, they need to be kept in schools.

Hopes for the future

My plans for the future are to continue our advocacy and continue to network and partner with like minds, and with people who believe in our dream to ensure that girls have the agency to make decisions in their own lives. And ensuring that no girl will be denied an education because of a natural process. We also want to ensure that there is no sexual harassment and that perpetrators are brought to justice. We also want to ensure that women’s political participation and leadership is amplified.