Written by Andreea Dogaru
Liberia, a former colony that gained independence in 1847, is a Western-African republic bordering Sierra Leone, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and the Atlantic Ocean. Etymologically, Liberia stands for ‘liberty’ and symbolises the establishment of enslaved people liberated from America and slowly, through more and more communities; their efforts amounted to a republic. Liberia can be classified as a ‘rebuilding’ country considering its independence-related challenges, its peace threats most recently illustrated by Liberia’s Civil Conflict and health crises such as E-coli, HIV and Covid-19 (The World Bank, 2021). While efforts for redress have been a part of the country’s narrative, Liberia remains one of the poorest African countries, with a rating of 181 out of 189 according to the Human Development Index (Launch Good, 2020). These challenges have had a substantial impact on the quality of Liberian education.
Liberia’s Education System
Before delving into the challenges threatening the access and quality of education in Liberia, it is essential to grasp the outlook of the educational infrastructure at the moment.
The educational system follows a tripartite primary, secondary and higher education structure. While primary education is free of cost, the facilities and the manner of institutional operation are not meeting minimum quality standards. The schools are operated by the churches, mainly following a catholic system followed by Episcopalian and Methodist schools (Liberia Education, n.d.). While most schools are public, some private ones also demand high fees but have better facilities. Out of this emerges a picture of acute socio-economic inequalities.
Importantly, there is a promise of projects such as the pilot projects of public/private schools’ partnerships, meaning that private school managers could operate public schools in an effort to improve the current educational infrastructure. This could be a game-changer. However, it is unclear whether this could be a general way of solving part of the education crisis (Venture Philanthropy, 2023).
The Sex4Grades Case Study
On top of the effects of a war that deprived the country of the prospect of change and resources, corruption and abuse have been ingrained within public educational institutions. This is manifested through the “Sex4Grades” phenomena. This phenomena entails being harassed or sexually abused in order to pass a test, a class or simply the whole year (Zebede & Shahid, 2016). UNICEF’s report confirms this to be a “widespread problem” (UNICEF, 2015). Almost one in five girls and boys has experienced abuse in school by school personnel (Front Page Africa, 2014). These numbers depict the current situation in the post-war period. It is essential to see that although the civil war stopped, the war on education in Liberia never ceased to exist.
Liberia’s Civil Conflict Effect on Education
The threat over peace, justice and the strength of institutions has been posed by the fourteen years-long civil war that ended in 2003. Structurally, the conflict has been a biphasic one. The First Liberian Civil War (1989-1997) can be explained through different root reasons starting from ethical clashes, socio-economic inequality, governmental corruption, and abusive use of power. This period was followed by two years of peace disrupted by the Second Liberian War (1999-2003) (Peace Building Data, n.d.). The underlying causes include practices of ethnic scapegoating and significant human rights abuses. Over 250000 individuals were killed in light of the war, around 780000 people were externally displaced, and 500000 were internally displaced (Dabo, 2012).
The human rights infringements during this period divorced the prospect of a regenerating educational system and left the country with the harm that was proven challenging to redress. The war comprised a series of massacres, the use of child soldiers, the abduction of civilians and non-civilians, sexual abuse of women and children, and psychological torture (Dabo, 2012). These human rights abuses did not discriminate, leaving everyone in the country vulnerable and exposed to dangerous situations (Dabo, 2012). Due to this feeling of non-safety, a significant number of Liberians sought refuge in countries such as Sierra Leone or Ghana.
In terms of effects on education, the Civil War led to the displacement of over 800000 school students because of two leading causes: they had to seek refuge in another country with their families. They were forced to take on the status of child soldiers. Over 80 % of the schools had to be closed during the war due to safety concerns (Lai & Thyme, 2007). The protracted non-participation in primary and secondary education is not just rebuilt after the civil war ends but can develop in a very similar way. The echo of the civil war is felt by the current illiteracy rate of over 50%, the significant dropout rates of around 70% in primary education, and low governmental expenditure spending on educational infrastructure (Liberia Education, n.d.).
The peacebuilding process entailed the establishment of a Peace Agreement through two new institutions, namely the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Independent National Commission on Human Rights. While the externally displaced were included in the peacebuilding process through the Diaspora Project, the internally displaced people were not given a voice leaving the discussion of reform focuses, such as the reform of access to education, to not be addressed with due importance(United Nations Peacebuilding, 2018). This confirms the prolonged education crisis felt even in the present days.
Learning Experiences from Ebola to the Covid-19 Pandemic
Health crises leave a multilateral impact. As seen from the Covid-19 pandemic, a health crisis can disturb different types of safety, varying from economic, political, and domestic safety to the safety one finds in having access to education (Watt, 2020).
In 2014, Liberia experienced a major Ebola outbreak that took the lives of 3600 Liberians. On top of the threat to health, this epidemic brought economic and psychological distress. In other words, it has accentuated the lack of readiness and stressed that there is a lack of resources even without managing a health crisis. However, it is essential to note that there is a noteworthy critique vis-a-vis the failure of the international community to involve itself more in amending the adverse effects of the epidemic (Santos & Novelli, 2017). As Ebola is a disease spread through bodily contact, many schools had to close for indeterminate periods, and the school personnel and the students had to undergo a twenty-one-day quarantine every time they felt any symptoms. To further illustrate this, five million children were deprived of education for nine months during the epidemic (Watt, 2020). The epidemic led to even more school dropouts and proved a lack of mobilisation when prioritising education (Santos & Novelli, 2017).
Similar to the Ebola outbreak, the Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to similar struggles and challenges. Schools had to be closed for a long and indeterminate period of time, leading to more gender-based violence, school dropouts, the involvement of children in street dealing and an increased number of forced child marriages (Tunwah, 2021).
Gender-based Discrimination in the Liberian Educational System
Both international and national legal standards stipulate equal access to education. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the entitlement of everyone to education in the “primary and fundamental stages” (United Nations, 2023). Moreover, education should be available and compulsory. Domestically, the Education Law of 1973 and the Free and Compulsory Education Law of 2002 stress the compulsory character of education between the ages of six and sixteen and the entitlement of every Liberian child to free education (International Bureau of Education, 2010).
While the standards are extant, it becomes clear with the previously discussed dropout phenomena that applying such standards is problematic. While, as argued so far, the current educational system is unsafe for all students, there is a prevalence of girls dropping out of school and not finishing their education. The dropout rates are 65% for boys and 73% for female students (Santos & Novelli, 2017). Thus, the education problem is also gendered, leaving one in four women illiterate (Educate Girls Network, 2015). Some of the leading causes consist of the patriarchal character of Liberia, teenage pregnancies, and child marriage (Educate Girls Network, 2015). Many of the subsequent reasons stem from Liberia being a patriarchy. The gender norms prevalent in Liberian society follow a traditional perspective.
Further, this conservative approach supports a hierarchy that posits men as the primary decision-makers and ‘bread-earners’ while attributing women with a ‘caregiver’ role. These gender norms have long-term consequences depicted in instances such as political representation. For example, in the aftermath of the 2017 House of Representatives elections, only nine women were part of the 73 seats winning body (Educate HER, 2017). This is not only visible in the political labour sector but the whole labour market. There is a great need to prioritise women’s education to improve socio-economic development (Educate HER, 2017).
Actors of Change in Liberia
While the general outlook of the educational situation in Liberia can be grim, some actors of change need to be mentioned. The Educate Global Partnership for Education funded Educate Her Project seeks to promote gender equity and equality in education by collaborating closely with governmental institutions and non-profit organisations. Their work results in policies and recommendations for educational interventions that challenge the current discrimination in the educational system (Educate HER, 2017).
Regarding innovative education, the Liberian Education Advancement Program rests on the partnership of public and private schools to provide accessible, free and more qualitative education. Furthermore, the United Nations Educational Scientific Organization has been a pillar in African reform and continues to provide resources such as teacher training workshops to improve the quality of education despite the lack of the state’s investment in education (Paygar Jr, 2014).
In conclusion, Liberia faces diverse challenges and continues to seek reform one after the other. The First and Second Civil Wars, doubled by the discussed health crises, have continuously challenged the country’s socio-economic development. While access to free education is protected under different international and national standards, the current educational system is characterised by significant dropout rates and human rights abuses. Still, there are several non-governmental actors that are trying to collaborate with the Liberian state for a better future.
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