Monrovia — Meriam Dukumue, like the majority of women in her country, cannot read and write. Having suffered through years of conflict and now the breadwinner of her family, she is giving her children and husband what she never had – an education.
Dukumue runs a small shop on Pagos Island on the outskirts of Monrovia, a neighbourhood of more than 3,000 residents accessible only on foot or by motorbike along paths that turn to mud in the rainy season. Each day while her three sons and husband are in school, she stays at home selling candies, biscuits, cooking oil, cigarettes, alcoholic drinks, matches, candles, soap, and water from her hand pump – the latter a vital commodity in a city where most people have no home water supply.
“I am not too old to go to school, but I am punishing myself for my family to be educated,” said Dukumue, 38. “If I decide to go to school today, who will take care of the home, how will the children go to school?”
Nearly 60 percent of Liberian women are illiterate and they suffered numerous setbacks during the country’s 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. According to recent government health and population surveys, 56 percent of Liberian women never attended school, and though enrolment is growing, the country still has Africa’s lowest net rate of primary school attendance.
Other indicators also suggest that women in post-war Liberia are far from gaining parity with men. Female genital cutting is common despite global campaigns to ban it as cruel and a health risk, and more than one-in-three young women report being victims of physical violence.
In addition, Liberia’s teenage pregnancy rate is 31 percent, compared to the global average of 11 percent. Teen pregnancies, abuse and abandonment are all cited as reasons why many adolescent girls never make it beyond primary school. Still, 60 percent of women continue to believe it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife, according to statistics from the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s only female president, has made girls’ education a top priority of the country’s poverty reduction programme and has lobbied aid agencies for help. She has also pressed for support of adult literacy programmes to help women who never had a chance to go to school during Liberia’s long years of tumult or became mothers in their adolescence – in other words, women like Dukumue.
“A sixth-grade, primary-school education might seem inconsequential to those with advanced and post-graduate degrees, but in my Liberia, where the illiteracy rate is particularly high among females, a level of education beyond mere literacy will enable women and girls to better function in a 21st century world,” Sirleaf told members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, founded by African-American women in 1908, in St. Louis, Missouri on 10 July.
Throughout each day on Pagos Island, Dukumue tends to customers at her shop before caring for her family at night, including her husband, who is a senior accounting student at the University of Liberia.
Though together since 1983, much of that time spent as refugees in neighbouring Guinea, the couple married in 2001. They were among the estimated 750,000 Liberians, out of a total population of 3.5 million, who fled to other West African nations during the war years. Another 200,000 people died during the conflict.
As refugees, the family survived by crushing stone, Meriam Dukumue recalled. They returned to Monrovia in 2003 from Guinea with 800 Liberian dollars (U.S.$11 at today’s exchange rate) and started the business that has since supported Dukumue’s husband (who did not want his name used for this article) and sons, Paul, King and Joe Mulbah.
Their return to Liberia has not been without hardship. Dukumue’s husband has suffered from typhoid fever. “I … advised him to stop selling while I take care of the home,” Dukumue said. The family’s Pagos Island shop has been burgled, and earlier this year armed robbers took cash and stock, though Dukumue was unharmed.
Today, two sons are at university and the youngest boy is still in school – a significant achievement in a country where a high school diploma, let alone a university degree, is rare. Liberia’s net school enrolment rate is five percent, according to the government’s 2010 Education Sector Plan, and 36 of the nation’s 92 districts have no high schools. Net enrolment is based on the number pupils attending classes appropriate to their age.
Each day, Dukumue says, she gives her sons L$100 (U.S.$1.40) for food and to get to school, and she gives her husband enough to get a ride to the university. The money is considerable in a country where a bag of rice costs U.S.$35, or about a third of a state worker’s monthly pay.
“It is not easy, but what to do? I have to do it,” she said.
Dukumue said she regrets not being educated, but has to live with that throughout her life, and looks forward to the day when her children can help care for her. “I am only depending on them to take care of me,” she said.
One of her sons, Paul, a mass communications student at the University of Liberia, has an ambition to be one of Liberia’s best journalists.
Dukumue also trusts that her husband will never be ungrateful to her for the support she has provided. She resents the stories she hears of men who abandon their wives and families, sometimes to start new families or to escape the burden of caring for a wife and children.
“Most of these men are heartless and I am not ready to suffer for them,” she said. “Maybe I could do that for my children, but not for a man.”
Ora Garway is managing editor of Punch, a biweekly newspaper in Monrovia. This article was written as part of an education training programme for journalists run by Transitions Online (www.tol.org) in Prague and sponsored by the Open Society Institute with the contribution of the Education Support Program.