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Notes from Liberia: Trip 3

Scroll down for compiled blog entries from Steven Botkin and James Arana in sequential order or click the links below to jump directly to a particular day's entry.

(You may also view blog entries and photos from MRI's previous trips to Liberia: Trip 1 Blog | Trip 2 Blog.)

Members of a Liberian Men's Action Group
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On July 16, MRI directors Steven Botkin and James Arana travelled to Liberia for a third visit in support of the International Rescue Committee’s new project, “Part of the Solution: Involving Men in Preventing Gender-Based Violence.”

Funded in part through Irish Aid, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Liberia contracted MRI in October 2006 to help develop an innovative approach to engaging men as allies against GBV in conflict affected settings. Through two onsite visits and remote technical support, MRI’s work with IRC has lead to:

  • Increased understanding and investment among IRC GBV staff in the value of a male involvement project
  • Increased knowledge and capacity among IRC GBV staff on the fundamental principles for engaging men and basic skills for facilitating women and men working together as allies
  • Development of nine Men’s Groups (total membership of 225 men) in three counties
  • Initial training and supervision conducted with all nine Men’s Groups
  • Planning for a national awareness raising campaign that was launched in June 2007

A considerable amount of momentum has been generated in the nine communities where Men’s Action Groups have been started. Based on the request of both communities and staff, the IRC has contracted with MRI again to provide additional in-country and remote technical support.

During this third visit from July 16 – 28, Steven and James are leading an additional staff training, consulting with IRC regarding long-term goals and strategies for the program, and helping to develop monitoring systems for the men’s action groups and initiatives.

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July 14, 2007: Newark Airport en route to Liberia

Greetings from the Newark, New Jersey airport. James and I have a five hour layover en route to Liberia (after another change of planes in Brussels, Belgium). We are returning to Liberia for a third consultation to the International Rescue Committee's Gender-Based Violence (GBV) program.

The relationship between Men's Resources International (MRI) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) began last fall. IRC had decided to expand their GBV program to include men, and received a grant from the Irish government to create a Male Involvement Project (MIP). Recognizing that they were in relatively uncharted territory, IRC hired MRI to provide training and technical assistance for this project.

Over the past nine months IRC-Liberia, with support from MRI, has quickly and effectively developed their vision for this project into a unique and exciting initiative that is spreading throughout the country. During the first MRI visit in November 2006 we provided orientation and training for the newly hired MIP officer, Joseph Ballah, assisted the GBV staff in understanding the goals for male involvement, and met with the Ministry of Gender and Development and other key constituencies. The second visit in February 2007 included a three-day staff training, supervision for MIP staff as they conducted similar trainings for newly forming Men's Action Groups (MAGs), a training for community leaders sponsored by the Ministry of Gender and Development, and an interagency workshop for members of the national GBV task group.

Men's Action Groups (MAGs) have now formed in nine communities throughout Liberia, in collaboration with the Women's Action Groups (WAGs) that IRC had already been supporting. Leaders from the MAGs and WAGs began planning a one-week community awareness raising campaign -- Men As Partners in Ending Violence Against Women (MAPEVAW) -- which launched June 25-29 in all three counties (Lofa, Nimba Montserrado). In July, IRC-Liberia hosted a regional exchange visit of IRC/GBV Staff from Sierra Leone & Ivory Coast to see the MIP Project activities to learned new promising practices to be taken back to their respective programs.

James and I are now returning to Liberia to provide follow-up training for GBV staff involved with the Male Involvement Project, to support GBV staff in conducting a monitoring exercise in each of the 9 communities, and to provide consultation for the new GBV Program Coordinator, Navanita Bhattacharya, national GBV Coordinator, Gertrude Garway, and other key constituencies on the development of a longer term prevention strategy.

This is a remarkable opportunity for both Men's Resources International and the International Rescue Committee. Together we are pioneering a model for engaging men in community-based initiatives throughout Liberia for ending gender-based violence. With the vision, leadership and staff support of IRC the men and women involved in this project are developing their awareness, skills and collaborative power to influence the norms and behaviors in a country that is emerging from a devastating history of violence.

We will do our best to keep you updated on this journey with regularly posts (and sometimes photos) on this blog. Thanks for your interest and support!

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Male Involvement Project campaign in Monrovia. Over 1000 people marched to City Hall
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MAPEVAW campaign in Saclepea, Nimba County
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Representatives from Women's and Men's Action Groups in nine Liberian communities gather to plan men's awareness campaign.
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July 16, 2007: Stories

It is unbelievably great being back here in Liberia in a familiar place and faces. Our day began the way it usually does, with very little sleep and much enthusiasm. Steven and I looked at each other faces and smiled that mischievous look of "can you believe it," we are really here for the second and third time, and acknowledge our blessings.

When we got to the office, big smiles and hugs welcomed us from Ballah, Edwin, Musu and the others. Meeting Navanita Bhattacharya, the new GBV Program Coordinator, for the first time after communicating by email and phone so many times, gave us a great sense of camaraderie. We quickly dove into a discussion about the latest developments in the GBV program, and the goals for our visit -- staff training, developing and testing monitoring and evaluation systems, and facilitating a strategic planning meeting of key constituencies. We also heard news about recent developments in Liberia (such as the shutting down of the University after a student strike).

We then joined the GBV staff meeting, reconnecting names with faces, and beginning to learn how they perceive the successes and challenges of the Male Involvement Project since its inception in November 2006. The 15 people (all but two of whom are women) remembered the many questions and concerns they raised in our first meeting that November. They reported that these questions and concerns had been addressed, men were willingly engaging as partners with women and women were very happy to have them involved. Listening to the current challenges and goals of this amazing staff group, we were impressed with how much has been accomplished over the last eight months using the training and technical support we have provided. It is obvious to us that there are few, if any, similar projects in the world right now.

We spent the rest of the day in additional planning and strategizing meetings with GBV/MIP leaders. Their readiness to move the program to its next stage of development, and receptiveness to our insights and recommendations is inspiring and exciting.

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July 17, 2007: The Men's Group Monitoring Guide

Our goal today was to field test the Men's Group Monitoring Guide developed by MRI marketing and communications director, Daniel Coyne, and revised in consultation with Navanita, Getrude, and other GBV management staff. After checking in at the IRC office we left for the ELWA community outside of Monrovia.

Sitting in the shade of a large burned out cinderblock building we met with members of the ELWA men's action group. They were delighted to respond to our questions about how the Male Involvement Project has affected themselves and others in their community. As sounds of drumming and singing emerged from the building, and children played noisily nearby, we listened to the men talk earnestly about how their lives had changed as a result of their involvement in the men's action group. A community leader described how he is now hosting gatherings at his home where he is "preaching" about the Men As Partners approach and helping to men to change their behavior towards women.

We then moved to another corner of the building to sit with members of the women's action group to hear their perspectives on the men's action group (MAG). They described the significant changes that the men's action group has inspired in their community and the increased their feeling of safety for women and girls that has resulted. They described how the men's action group contributed their time and money to get t-shirts printed for the women's action group, and is helping them build a women's center. And, even though there are times when the men fall back into patterns of dominating the joint meetings of both groups, the women are able to express this to the men, and the men readily change this behavior.

After ELWA we drove to Chocolate Factory (yes, there was a chocolate factory there before the war) to meet with men's and women's action group members in that community where we heard very similar feedback about the Male Involvement Project. In both places we heard stories of men's increasing involvement in the traditionally women's housework activities (such as cooking and cleaning).

The biggest challenge that was consistently described was how to make involvement in gender-based violence prevention activities economically sustainability. With unemployment at 80-90% the first priority for these men and women is to find ways to feed their families. While there is no doubt about their commitment to violence prevention and their eagerness to engage in outreach and awareness-raising in their communities, their availability for these activities is limited by this basic need.

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Meeting with ELWA Men's Action Group
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July 18, 2007: Visit to Chicken Soup Factory

This morning we packed 18 people into a small van (not an unusual experience here) and traveled from the IRC office to the community of Chicken Soup Factory (named after the business that was there before the war). We are conducting two days of staff training in the Chicken Soup Factory women's center for the women and men who attended our introductory training in February.

In our previous visits to this women's center it was constructed primarily of grass mats on a cement foundation of a demolished single room structure. Now, a whole new meeting room with a metal roof and plaster walls painted a beautiful blue had been constructed out of what had previously been a front courtyard.

Most of our first day was spent giving staff a variety of opportunities to explore their assessment of the successes and challenges of the Male Involvement Project since its inception eight month age. This staff group, social workers and trainers based in three different Liberian counties separated by 5-9 hours of rough roads, has few opportunities to be together as a team. The discussion, punctuated by pounding rain creating an almost deafening drumming on the roof, was very important to them.

They shared many stories of men and women making real changes in the lives of the women, men and families of their communities. Men are now referring cases of domestic violence and sexual assault to the IRC social workers. Men and women's action groups in collaboration with community leaders are working together to develop and enforce community rules and regulations about family violence. Men are directly approaching men who have been abusive to challenge them on their behaviors, and support them in developing respectful attitudes and behaviors towards women. Women are more confident in their outreach activities, knowing they have male allies in the community.

In June, the Men As Partners to End Violence Against Women (MAPEVAW) campaign mobilized more than 4000 men and women in nine communities using street parades, sports programs, speakers, skits, songs, chants, dancing, posters and stickers. Over 1700 people in Monrovia marched, chanting and singing, several miles to a rally in City Hall. And one of the major cell phone companies in Liberia, Lonestar, sent a text message to 150,000 subscribers reading "Real Men Do Not Abuse Women- Please join the IRC in supporting its campaign on Men AS Partners in Ending Violence Against Women- June 25-29, 2007."

We also heard about a recent regional meeting of IRC GBV staff from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote D'Ivoire where the Male Involvement Project was highlighted. Representatives from several of the men's and women's action groups conducted several of the awareness-raising activities they learned from Men's Resources International to demonstrate strategies for male involvement.

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Training with IRC staff
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IRC GBV staff outside Chicken Soup Factory Women's Center
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July 19, 2007: Return to Chicken Soup Factory for a second day of IRC staff training.

The drive from the IRC office passes through Red Light (named, like many places in Liberia, after landmarks that no longer exist - destroyed in the war). This bustling market place and transportation hub for the ubiquitous taxis and small vans could certainly use that red light. Honking vehicles seem to be driving in every direction at once, weaving through throngs of people carrying all sorts of bowls, baskets, and packages on their heads, and moving products and lumber in wheelbarrows. Everyone is dodging huge potholes. Because it is rainy season, puddles like small lakes and deep mud are everywhere.

Our morning session focuses on raising awareness about gender dynamics within the staff team, and practicing cross-gender communication skills so they can educators and role models for the women's and men's action groups with whom they work. In separate gender groups they identify appreciations and concerns about how they are interacting. The dialogue that ensues when they come together to share these observations with each other demonstrates how far they have come in listening to and trusting each other. Subtle issues of male control are able to be sensitively addressed, and strategies for sharing food preparation and serving responsibilities are developed (and immediately put into practice).

In the afternoon we reviewed a number of topics from the February MRI training handbook that staff requested to increase their competency in teaching to others. This was followed by generating ideas for the next steps with the men's action groups.

We end the day with several hours of debriefing at the IRC office, and dinner at our hotel celebrating James' birthday.

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Children at Chicken Soup Factory
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IRC staff Edwin, Anita, Ebinezer
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July 20, 2007: Meeting with key stakeholders

Recognizing that the Male Involvement Project has made tremendous progress, and committed to creating a broad based social change process, today IRC has organized a "Key Stakeholders Male Involvement Strategy Planning Workshop." Representatives from the Ministry of Gender, police, youth services, and men's and women's action groups as well as IRC staff attend.

The meeting begins with presentations about the background and history of the GBV program and male involvement project from Gertrude (IRC national GBV coordinator), Navanita ad Ballah. WAG and MAG representatives then give stirring testimonies about the profound impacts the male involvement initiative has already had on their communities, confirming the stories we have already heard over the past two days from IRC staff.

James and I then facilitate the group in a discussion about their ideas for how to continue to expand the involvement of men as allies with women for ending violence against women, and how they can work together to make this happen. It is a unique and exciting opportunity for diverse community sectors to talk and listen to each other, and many promising ideas are discussed, including fostering community leadership and community-based organizations, advocating for stronger enforcement of government employee policy on violence against women, and outreach to religious and educational institutions.

As we met, IRC submitted their Year Two funding request for the Male Involvement Project to Irish Aid, with high hopes that many of the ideas generated by the IRC staff and this stakeholders workshop will be carried forward in the years to come. Gertrude concluded the workshop by expressing IRC's commitment to continuing to bring together these stakeholders in a participatory, community empowerment process. And James distributed MRI "Courage = Compassion" t-shirts to all participants.

I departed for the Monrovia airport to begin the long journey home (over 30 hours in transit). The week went quickly, and I was sad to leave my friends and colleagues. But know I will continue to be supporting the development of this pioneering program, and these brave and committed people. I know I will be returning to Liberia before long.

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Poster of positive masculinity developed after MRI training.
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Men as Partners for Ending Violence Against Women (MAPEVAW) campaign rally at Monrovia City Hall.
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July 25, 2007: A phone call from James in Liberia

We received a wonderful phone call this afternoon from James who is still in Liberia. He has just returned to Monrovia from travels to the villages of Karnplay, Saclepea, and Ganta in rural Nimba county. In each community he met with representatives from the mens' and women's action groups, training IRC staff to conduct interviews to assess the impacts of the Male Involvement Project.

The ride to Karnplay, which was supposed to take an hour and a half, actually took twice that long due to washed out roads full of mud and craters. This allowed the IRS staff time to practice their interviewing skills with feedback from James. They worked on adapting the questions to be more easily understood in "Liberian English." They also practiced asking questions in a way that would not be interpreted as threatening or judgmental.

Women and men from groups in all areas gave remarkably consistent and resoundingly positive feedback:

  • Women are feeling safer in their communities
  • Women are feeling more empowered to take actions
  • A number of men have stopped beating their wives and children
  • More girls are going to school
  • Group and community members are refraining from assigning heavy labor to children

A number of men from different communities openly spoke about their past violent behavior -- both verbal and physical -- and their efforts to change. Both women and men said they have witnessed profound changes in their own lives, in their peers, and in their communities.

A number of men spoke about how they had begun sharing domestic duties and responsibilities with their wives that they would not have ever considered in the past:

  • Carrying water
  • Preparing meals
  • Sharing information and decisions about finances

One man in his 60's told about how he was always the king of his household. When he first heard about women's issues, he dismissed it. There is no issue! Slowly he began to listen. Slowly he began to wonder if his wife actually respected and cared about him -- or if she just feared him. While they were walking, he noticed that she was both carrying their child in her arms, and their water on her head. Like always, he carried nothing. The next day, his wife was astounded to see him carrying the water for his own bath. He has also begun to help with preparing food, and helping with other household duties.

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Men taking on new roles in Liberia.
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Men learning to serve women.
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