During the civil conflict, children and young people constituted the largest group of recruited fighters; these youths are part of an entire generation that has until now never experienced peace in their lifetime.
Liberia continues to recover from a 14-year civil conflict that devastated its infrastructure and economy, as well as its social and political institutions. Of the 3.5 million populations about 55% are under 19 years. And this current generation of Liberian adolescent’s girls and boys face another problem – limited access to quality education and other self-development opportunities and vulnerabilities to violence, abuse and exploitation.
With gross shortage of schools, qualified teachers and learning materials, a large majority of parents are forced to send their children to live with relatives or guardians in Monrovia or other urban county capitals to complete their junior and senior high school education. In cases where there is no destination family, the youngsters live with peers in meagre accommodation in an impoverished condition.
In such cases they are particularly vulnerable to sexual enticement, early pregnancy, and HIV infection, especially where schools are located on reopened trade routes or industrial sites. Girls are also at risk from predatory teachers offering to sell grades for sexual gratification. This abuse of girls also undermines the quality of education and doubly jeopardises their futures by risking early pregnancy and inability to cope with later stages of education. It also reinforces gender dependency, teaches girls to negotiate returns for sexual favours and undermines their potential for genuine empowerment. It changes the basis of peer relations based on respect and any emerging sense of meritocracy and ultimately can contribute to youth violence.
The 2007 Liberia Demographic Health Survey data imply that the pattern of youthful migration into urban areas peaks in the age group 15-19. Up to age 10, more children reside in rural areas than urban; but in the age group 10-19, significantly more children reside in urban areas (26% urban to 18.6% rural). Within the 15-19 age group, the proportion of girls living in the urban areas overtakes that of boys (11% compared to 9%). The main reason for their migration is education; however some proportion, especially of girls, comes to work. How many are enticed or even abducted by ‘recruiters’ for exploitation as workers or sellers is unknown. The UNICEF supported trafficking study of 2009 reports prevalence of such practices including examples of coercion of young girls and boys into exploitative situations, deception by means of false promises of recreation, employment, education, shelter, care, and religious fulfilment.
The issue of violence against children, especially for girls, is very high in Liberia. Sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) is widespread with 13.6% of sexually active girls under 15 years reporting their first sexual experience was forced against their will1. The 2007 Liberia Demographic and Household Survey (LDHS) reported that 40% of 15-19 year old adolescents experienced physical violence by 15 years of age and 13% experienced sexual violence.
More recently, in the first six months of 2013, over 800 rape cases were reported by hospitals in Monrovia. 90 percent of the survivors were children.
A third of girls aged 15-19 are mothers or pregnant, and girls in south-eastern Liberia are four times more likely to be married early than girls living in Monrovia. In 2007, HIV prevalence among women aged 15-49 years was 1.8, compared to 1.2 for men. In 2007, 58 per cent of women (ages 15-58 years) were estimated to have undergone genital cutting. More recent reports of 2013 show that sexual violence against children in extremely high.
The Government and the UN initiated a joint programme to accelerate efforts to empower and protect Adolescent Girls from violence, abuse and exploitation. Civil society including religious and traditional leaders, have begun openly denouncing violence against children and appealing to the public for protection of children from violence in schools and communities. A youth education and empowerment programme lead by the government with support from the UN and development partners is also providing young men and women with life and vocational skills, healthy and safe behaviours, and engaging them more and more as agents of peace and development in communities across the country.