14 January 2007
by Andrej Mahecic
Garmai Gbelawoe had to mark the ballot paper with her inked fingerprint when she voted in Liberia's landmark presidential election in November 2005.
Today, she feels empowered after learning how to read and write at a women's centre that is helping to reintegrate returnees in the country's Bong County, north of the national capital, Monrovia.
The Suakoko Women's Centre was refurbished with UNHCR funding two years ago as part of the reconstruction of Liberia after 14 years of devastating civil war. "A number of courses were set up, giving women practical knowledge on tailoring, hairdressing, tie and dye, cooking, soap-making, and so on. But, the one most appreciated and valued by women is the adult literacy programme," said David Karp, who heads the UNHCR office in the county capital, Gbarnga.
Garmai, one of more than 94,000 Liberian refugees to return home from countries in the region since 2003, was among the first to sign up for the course. She was grateful for the chance to make up for the years of lost education and could see the funny side of going to school at the same time as her six children.
And she was a quick learner. "No more fingerprints for me. Now, I can read and write on my own," she said proudly, while acknowledging that her experience with the ballot paper was a turning point. It was perhaps appropriate that the election was won by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who became the first woman to be elected as an African head of state.
Garmai is continuing her studies, attending literacy classes three times a week. She hopes that she can qualify to become a volunteer teacher and help other women gain the same knowledge in a country where up to 85 percent of the adult population is illiterate.
The centre makes a bit of money from the sale of goods produced by students in its workshops. But this is used to buy tools and material and it depends heavily on the dedication of its volunteers, like literacy teacher Allen George.
"I always remembered how ashamed I was with the way my sisters were treated and how sorry I was for them. This seems to be the way to rectify an old injustice," he said, referring to the past lack of education opportunities for girls in Liberia.
The centre is not only a crucible of learning, it also plays an important social role. It offers a rare forum for women from neighbouring villages to meet, exchange thoughts and discuss their problems.
More and more returnees are expected in Liberia this year and to support reintegration, UNHCR has initiated a wide range of projects aimed at revitalising the agricultural sector and boosting infrastructure, such as reconstruction of roads, wells, schools and clinics.
But reintegration will be slow and difficult at a time when the political stability of Liberia is still fragile. The knowledge gained at the Suakoko Women's Centre will give Garmai – and the other 75 women now enrolled in literacy courses there – an advantage in a country desperately short of educated and skilled people.
There are still some 138,000 Liberian refugees in the West African region – mostly in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone. UNHCR plans to conclude its assisted repatriation programme for Liberia by June this year.