A Light in the Dark: The Plights of Children in Postwar Liberia
by Sarah Goldthrite
After Liberian native and current MSW student Felecia Badio Merriam stepped off a plane in Liberia on Christmas Day 2013, what she saw journeying from the airport to her father’s house instantly changed her path in social work.
“I was amazed to see so many children along the streets, everywhere -- really young children between the ages of 3 to about 17,” Merriam says. “I knew I had to investigate to figure out what’s going on with these kids and how the government is handling this.”
Turns out, there is a lot going on. According to Merriam, the children in Liberia’s streets, particularly in the densely populated capital, Monrovia, are homeless, orphaned or impoverished and working as street vendors or in drugs or prostitution to support themselves or their families, many times foregoing school completely to labor from the first beams of sunlight straight through the twilight of night. Merriam recalls even seeing children as young as 5 in nightclubs at 11 o’clock at night.
“Most children in Liberia don’t have access to adequate education or other resources,” she explains. “Because of the devastation of the war, the infrastructure was demolished. Many of the schools there are still broken down, just hallowed buildings.
“To compound that barrier, only about 1 percent of the population can access public electricity – I actually saw children huddled under a street light at night trying to study. One child, who was about 14 or 15, told me he gathers kids from the community and tries to help them with their schoolwork. My heart breaks for them. These kids who don’t have anything are trying so hard to study and make themselves better.”
They are children struggling with what are often called adult issues in a country where a staggering 61 percent of its population is under the age of 24. The war is over, but the youth of Liberia are now battling an array of global issues -- violence, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health issues, sexual and physical abuse, and limited education, health and social resources. With so many children having to work and forego an education, as Merriam explains, preparing the future generation to take the reins proves problematic.
“If we have these problems with children now,” says Merriam, “if they aren’t in school and aren’t prepared to take over, people who are in their 30s and 40s now will likely have to work for the rest of their lives.”
Access – to mental and physical health care, to social services, to basic necessities, to quality education – is one crucial element in stabilizing Liberia 10 years after civil war, Merriam says. Without access, the next generation of children will face the same struggles, and the current generation will face these issues and barriers into adulthood.
Merriam originally intended to research and work with ex-child soldiers, now young adults, facing myriad issues a decade after spending up to 14 years engaged in combat. Adults impacted physically and mentally by long bouts of battle have few places to turn for help dealing with PTSD and the loss of limbs, for example.
Developing services for children ultimately translates to improved services for the entire population. Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has constructed a ten year plan aimed at rebuilding and strengthening much-needed services, and the University of Liberia recently introduced social work into its curriculum.
With a little light shed on Liberia’s struggles and the importance of accessible social welfare resources, culturally-conscious people like Merriam can continue to help Liberia transform into a globally competitive nation with empowered citizens able to reach their full potential.
“With war come so many social problems that need to be addressed,” Merriam says. “I’m amazed at how far they’ve come, but there is still a long way to go.”