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Notes from Liberia: Trip 4

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 | Trip 3 Blog.)

Click on any of the photos above to jump to a full-size slideshow.
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On May 17, 2008, MRI directors Steven Botkin and James Arana travelled to Liberia for a fourth 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 first contracted MRI in October 2006 to help develop an innovative approach to engaging men as allies against GBV in conflict affected settings. Through 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 15 Men’s Groups
  • Initial training and supervision conducted with the initial 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 15 communities where Men’s Action Groups have been started. IRC has contracted with MRI again to provide additional in-country and remote technical support.

During this fourth visit from May 18 – 30, 2008, Steven and James are leading an advanced training on cross-gender dialogue and action-planning, 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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May 18, 2008: Traveling to Liberia

We’re on our way. Our fourth trip to Liberia over the past year and a half. It’s a familiar journey now – a short hop from Hartford to Washington; overnight to Brussels (arriving early morning after a short night’s sleep); four hours in the airport; and another eight hours to Monrovia.

Men’s action groups (MAGs) working in partnership with women’s action groups (WAGs) have formed in 15 different communities throughout Liberia as a result of our collaboration with the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Together they are forging new community-based strategies and a powerful national network to end gender-based violence and promote positive masculinity.

The relationship with between Men’s Resources International and the IRC has enabled us to provide ongoing in-country and remote support for staff training and the development of these action groups — something we have not yet been able to do in other settings. During this visit we will be meeting with representatives from most of these WAGs and MAGs for four days of training, consulting and planning for the next steps in their community mobilization. This will include advanced training on cross-gender dialogue skills, the development of a behavior change continuum model for engaging men in GBV prevention, initiating an action planning process for engaging boys and girls in GBV prevention and gender equality, and planning for the creation of sustainable community based organizations.

In the Brussels airport we met the Liberian country director for Search for Common Ground, an international NGO dedicated to using media for peace-building. We had an inspiring conversation about how the men’s and women’s GBV prevention action groups could be a resource for media representations about peace-building initiatives in Liberia, and how SFCG could be a resource for helping the MAGs and WAGs to get our their messages about GBV prevention, positive masculinity and healthy families.

On the drive into Monrovia from the airport we listened to a radio program where one person after another made announcements about missing family and loved ones from the war that they are trying to find. It was a heartbreaking reminder that the impacts of the war are far from over in this beautiful and traumatized country.

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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May 18, 2008: Giving Thanks

I got up for my morning meditation with the knowledge that my ancestors had been waiting for me. I continue to open my self to their guidance. This journey, like all journeys begins with asking for blessings and guidance from my ancestors. My recent trip back home to Belize profoundly reconnected me to my elders and ancestors. In Belize, I sat in council with them, humbled myself, and was reminded of how important it is that I continue to be available to each and every one of them. I told my brothers and sisters, and my elders in Belize about this upcoming trip to support our brothers and sisters in Liberia.

There is power in this journey, that despite the trauma of the middle passage, I am still able to go back home in love, caring, and visioning for our youth. My family in Belize asked me to give thanks to our Liberian brothers and sisters.

I go to Liberia, carrying my brothers and sisters from the US and Central America in my heart. They have given us the trust and confidence that we are on the right path, supporting a nation, by supporting one person, one men’s group, women’s group at a time.

I go on this trip, prepared by my 30 years of commitment to working with youth, and am overflowing with joy that we will walk with our brothers and sisters to build healthier communities. I would like to acknowledge and honor the strength, power and vision of our Liberian brothers and sisters, in their determination to support our youth and our future.

The past few weeks leading up to this trip have been riveting, as we paid attention to all that needed to be done in preparation for this work. We, the MRI team, have been in overdrive to get our training handbook together. Much thanks to SuperDan for gathering all our ideas and making sense and order out of them. Thanks to Steven for his tireless work in gathering data for the training. I reap the benefits of both their work. I challenge us to make sure that all our hard work continues to be holistic, and engages not only our minds, but also continues to engage our heart and spirit.

In Peace,
James Arana

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May 19, 2008: Reacquainted

We arrived at the IRC office on the first day greeted by warm smiles, finger-snapping handshakes, “welcome back,” and hugs (one for each cheek). So many now familiar faces.

Most of the day was spent with the GBV leadership team, Gertrude Garway - national coordinator, Ester Karnley - advocacy manager, Musue Oberley - Montserrado county program manager, Musu Mulbah - Nimba county program manager, and Joseph Ballah – Lofa county senior program officer. This was the first time (in our experience) that this team was only Liberian nationals. There was much for us to catch up on.

The IRC approach in Liberia is now moving from “post-conflict” to “reconstruction,” and the GBV prevention strategy is shifting from service delivery to social change. The GBV staff has been reduced from about 60 to just over 30, as the emphasis is increasingly on supporting community-based groups to take over services and activities. The Male Involvement Project has been integrated into the overall “community development” dimension of the program (with five female and four male staff).

Even as they navigate all of these changes, the spirit of the GBV program remains strong. They have created new women’s and men’s action groups in two additional communities in each county, bringing the total number of WAG/MAG teams in Liberia to fifteen. And in many communities these groups are developing collaborative activity and initiatives for awareness-raising and economic development.

For lunchtime, we joined a group of “ex-pats” (from Kenya, Pakistan, Spain and other places) working for IRC who were going to an Indian restaurant. Their lives are filled with stories of working for a range of NGOs in countries all over the world. Such different perspectives than the Liberians working in the GBV program!

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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May 20, 2008: Walking the Walk

The day of the 20th ended with great blessings as buckets of rain poured down for several hours. Walking home my sandals got stuck ankle deep in the mud. I had to stick my hands into the mud and water to retrieve them, then walk home barefoot carrying my sandals. At 10 pm I said goodnight to Ballah after a few hours of catching up with the inspiring work taking place in Lofa County, one of the most rural areas of Liberia. The whole day was full of men and women sharing stories of the impact of the two- and three-day trainings the MAG/WAG’s have participated in.

Our training day ended after meeting with the core GBV staff from each of the three counties and the National Coordinator. She and her team expressed their appreciation for learning about gender dialogue skills and how to hold each other accountable. The men and women shared their challenges with walking the walk in their own personal lives. They were magnificent in their vulnerability, and were excited to continue supporting each other on a regular basis.

It was great sitting outside in this open structure with the view of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon and a fresh breeze cooling our skin. We decided to meet in our compound because the IRC is like Grand Central Station with cars, trucks and people moving at a furious pace and the noise from generators humming at deafening decibels.

In Peace,
James Arana

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May 20, 2008: Poignant Stories of Change

We spent the day with 14 staff from the IRC GBV program reviewing the core male involvement concepts and skills, practicing cross-gender dialogue, and preparing for the upcoming training.

Sitting together in the outdoor hut we were filled with appreciation for these women and men who are deeply committed to the work of ending violence against women and girls in Liberia.

The stories we heard about how men are changing in the communities where they work were profoundly inspiring. A woman in one community asked a female IRC staff, “what medicine are you giving my husband that he no longer beats me, and wants to be involved with the men’s action group?” Another woman described how a big county-wide meeting did not have enough space to include the women who wanted to attend. But the women had learned to speak up for themselves and complained to the meeting organizers. And the men had learned to listen to women, so they made space for women to sit in the meeting and participate. And, in a dramatic evidence of social change, the women were invited to participate in an upcoming training for community leaders, a role traditionally reserved only for men.

One of the male staff described an experience he had leading a community training (using the format he learned from Men’s Resources International). During the men’s “fishbowl” activity, where men sit in the center of the circle and describe their own personal experiences with violence, a young man talked painfully about the abusiveness of his father. When an older man in the group began to cry as well, everyone learned that he was the younger man’s father. The father made a tearful commitment to ending his violence and changing his life. Several weeks later he invited the IRC staff to his home to witness how he was now talking openly and honestly with his wife.

It is these stories that poignantly demonstrate the impact that the male involvement initiative has been having on the lives of people throughout the country. And we are deeply grateful for the opportunity to hear the how the strategies and skills that we have been teaching are rippling out through the IRC staff to communities throughout the country.

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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May 22, 2008: Enduring Support

I know it has been stated before about the magnitude of this movement of community workers from the different villages, towns and cities in Liberia. The women’s action group (WAG) and men’s action group (MAG) teams, primarily from the rural communities in Lofa, Nimba, and Monserrado Counties, are now working to coordinate their efforts, develop their skills as trainers, and expand their outreach to boys and girls. The appreciation shown by the staff and the community volunteers for each other continues to surprise them. Each day they look at each other and say that they did not expect that their learning together was going to be this easy, satisfying, profound.

Each day, the women from the WAGs bless us with their knowledge, vision, and courage. They give direction and hold the men accountable for how they interact in their community. They talk about what is working well and where improvements are needed. The consistent theme from the women is their enduring support for the men for their efforts to be allies and partners. Many examples were given of the way the MAGs have successfully impacted other men in their communities, and the respect for women’s leadership in the WAG/MAG partnerships.

At the end of today’s training I could see in the gleam in the eyes of all the participants as they understood the effects their actions are having. The potential for expanding their impact for reaching men and boys in supporting and creating a safer community for girls and boys was exciting and overwhelming at the same time. They know that they are the ones who are in the forefront of this struggle, and that they are at the beginning of a great journey.

In Peace,
James Arana

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We, men of Liberia, are publicly stating our commitment to ending violence against women. We understand the pain of women and men, and the costs to society, caused by this violence. For the health of our families and the future of our communities, we pledge to challenge gender-based violence in its many forms, and to support women’s safety and empowerment. We will work together with women legal protections and social services for victims, and educational programs for violence prevention and gender equality. We will be role models of positive masculinity for our children in our words and actions. And we invite other men of Liberia to join us in this pledge.

We, women of Liberia, call upon our fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to join us in ending gender-based violence in our families and communities. We understand the pain of women and men, and the costs to society, caused by this violence. We support men in their own journey of healing from violence, and welcome men as partners in creating healthy families and communities.

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May 25, 2008: Recap of 4-Day Training

Dear friends and colleagues,

James and I are spending today (Sunday) resting after six days of consulting and training here in Liberia. A leisurely breakfast and a long walk on the beach gave us the chance to take a deep breath, share our observations and feelings about the week, and drink in the experiences of Liberia.

Our week moved from consultations with the GBV leadership team on Monday, to IRC GBV staff training on Tuesday, to four days of training (Wednesday – Saturday) with representatives of women’s and men’s action groups from 9 communities in addition to IRC staff (a total of 50 people). With the support of MRI training and consultations, IRC has been carefully supporting the development of a women’s action group (WAG) and a men’s action group (MAG) in each of these communities. And now it was time to bring representatives of each of these groups together to enhance their leadership and partnership skills, strengthen their organizational capacity as WAG/MAG collaborations, and promote a national network of community-based organizations modeling how women and men work together for GBV prevention and economic sustainability.

The experience of these past four days was remarkable in many ways. For many of the community participants from the rural areas (“the bush”) this was their first experience of the city. Sitting for four days in an air-conditioned room with facilitators who spoke “American English” was challenging. And yet, what happened during this time was an exciting example of individual and collective consciousness-raising and movement-building.

Day One opened with each community of women and men introducing themselves using the ribbon pole (“commitment tree”) that they had created in their introductory male involvement training. Using training handbooks and presentations by IRC staff, core components of the MRI training (beliefs about men, man in the box, male socialization and obstacles and strategies for engaging men) were reviewed. Inviting community members to give feedback to the female/male presentation teams helped to refine staff skills, empower participants, and model women and men sharing leadership.

Day Two began with an activity that helps participants see what they have in common and what is different. As people stepped into the circle to see who shares “common ground” the questions they asked became increasingly powerful and painful. “Who had both of their parents killed before the age of 12?” “Who was abandoned by their husband?” “Who saw 50 members of their community murdered?” Who was beaten by their parents?” “Who was a beaten by their husband?” “Who has beaten their wife?” “Who has committed marital rape?” Breaking the silence is being taken very seriously by these women and men, knowing that this is needed for making the personal and social changes they want.

We then introduced the concept of “cross-gender dialogue” as an essential skill for women and men to build partnerships. Discussing the meetings of their women’s and men’s action groups provided an opportunity to apply this concept to their own experiences. There was a lot of interest in understanding the traps in cross-gender dialogue (e.g. men dominating the conversation, interrupting, ignoring and discounting what women say, etc.), and the different effects of using the words “but” or “and” was especially meaningful. Throughout the rest of the training there were many opportunities to practice and give each other feedback about these skills and traps.

The WAG/MAG teams then had a chance to meet to prepare their mission statements, a timeline of their histories, and assess the men’s action group on their ally behaviors. Presentations for each group were made by woman/man teams, practicing shared leadership.

We ended the day with a slide show about the history of Men’s Resources International and the men’s initiatives we have been supporting in Zambia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Liberia and the United States. Participants were inspired to know that they are part of a global movement of women and men as partners for ending violence and promoting healthy communities.

Day Three focused on the process of behavior change and strategies for engaging boys and girls in GBV prevention. After describing the stages in a behavior change continuum we asked participants to talk with each other about the things in their own lives that helped them become more aware and engaged in GBV prevention.

IRC announced engaging boys and girls as a priority for the next stage of their GBV program. We showed the video “Life of a Boy” produced by Promundo in Brazil, and were amazed at how much similarity there is with boys’ experiences in Liberia. Based on these experiences, participants had many ideas about how they could support boys and girls in Liberia.

Day Four, our last day together, focused on strategic planning for the women and men action groups. Participants were excited to envision community-based organizations with leadership teams composed of women and men working in partnership. We worked on a national mission statement for the network of community groups, as well as the second annual campaign for engaging men and boys as partners with women and girls for ending gender-based violence. And they were delighted when Gertrude (national GBV coordinator) announced IRC funding support for collaborative WAG/MAG proposals from each community for GBV prevention and economic sustainability.

After reviewing the activities of the past four days, men and then women recited their pledges about ending GBV in Liberia. We honored each person with a certificate of completion for this training. In the closing ceremony each community ribbon pole was connected with new ribbons to a central pole representing the national network. Bells were attached to the ribbons and we experienced the wonderful sound of the connections among community groups breaking the silence together. The ribbons with bells were then wound around each pole as an addition, which will help them remember the strength of their connection when they return to their homes.

The four days were filled with songs, and delightful group “energizers” shared by participants. And everyone left feeling inspired, informed and uplifted. We look forward to seeing what happens next.

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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May 26, 2008: Ministry of Gender and Development

This morning, after sitting in on the Montserrado County GBV staff meeting, we met with the leadership team to debrief from last week’s training and provide consultation on next steps for program development. The morning ended with an overview of the training for the staff who had not been able to attend.

In the afternoon, we traveled with Gertrude to the Ministry of Gender and Development (MGD). We met with the Assistant Minister of Research, the Honorable Patricia Kamara, who was eager to learn more about the developments in IRC’s GBV program. She expressed keen interest in the male involvement project, saying that many other organizations and groups are recognizing how important it is, but don’t know how to do it. She asked if the Ministry of Gender field staff could be trained in this approach. We suggested that there are now IRC staff, with extensive training from MRI, who can provide this training. Ms. Kamara told Gertrude that she would like to make this happen as soon as possible. IRC’s commitment to working closely with the Ministry was affirmed, and it was beautiful for us to witness these two Liberian women working together for women’s safety and empowerment. Our training day ended after meeting with the core GBV staff from each of the three counties and the National Coordinator. She and her team expressed their appreciation for learning about gender dialogue skills and how to hold each other accountable. The men and women shared their challenges with walking the walk in their own personal lives. They were magnificent in their vulnerability, and were excited to continue supporting each other on a regular basis.

It was great sitting outside in this open structure with the view of the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon and a fresh breeze cooling our skin. We decided to meet in our compound because the IRC is like Grand Central Station with cars, trucks and people moving at a furious pace and the noise from generators humming at deafening decibels.

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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May 27, 2008: Jr. High GBV Classes

Today, Tuesday, was one of the best days of many great days. We got to visit a junior high school (grades 5 - 8). There were at least thirty students who are part of a new initiative, Gender Clubs. This class is headed by a teacher who was trained as a GBV instructor while in the camps. When we arrived, the students were asked to share what they remembered from their GBV classes and they responded by listing the topics area they have covered: sexual exploitation and abuse, forced marriages, rape, domestic violence, child labor and others.

They were asked why they felt it was important for them to learn about these topics. One girl responded by saying that lots of people don’t know these things and they get taken advantage of. Another girl said that if an older man comes to talk to them about helping them out for money they will tell them that this is wrong and go tell her parents. Another child talked about how she told her father that when he hits her mother and yells at the children that he is doing domestic violence.

The children then asked us what they can do when they see domestic violence taking place. We acknowledged that this is one of the questions most often asked of us. We said it was important for them to keep from being harmed themselves in those situations. And that to look and pay attention can help draw attention to the situation. We suggested finding an adult to talk to or going to the authorities. We recognized that sometimes there is nothing they can do to stop it, and talk to someone about that feeling of powerlessness is important. Finally, we reinforced how important it is for them to learn to be healthy adults themselves, and share their understanding with others.

We then went with Edwin, GBV staff trainer, to the community called “Chicken Soup Factory” to meet with some youth who are no longer attending school for any number of reasons: not being able to afford tuition, needing to fend for themselves and not having a stable place to live. The two instructors, Kebe and James, who were both in the four day training with us, were in good form, sharing the facilitation. They had the attention of the class as they talked about gender and sex. These students ranged from 12 to 30 years old. We also had a brief but lively interview, had lunch, and went on to another WAG & MAG community center.

The women at this women’s center were taking a workshop in sewing. They reminded me of when I was an apprentice tailor back in Belize. They were practicing sewing button holes with different stitches -- all by hand. Then they were learning how to cut materials to complete a pattern. The instructor told us that she is volunteering her time because this is a worthwhile endeavor.

A few minutes later, the leader of the MAG, Pastor Samuel D. Karnley, came to meet with us and with several other men’s action group members. They told us how they helped the women’s action group build the women’s center we were in, and affirmed their commitment to supporting the WAG. They expressed the desire to address what they see as a major problem in their community. “Many young women in this community are now spending lots of their efforts trying to get money from men and it’s destroying our community.” Pastor Karnley told us of his goal to provide skills training and other forms of support for these girls so they would have other options for taking care of themselves. He asked our advice for how to get assistance in implementing this plan. We recommended that these ideas get discussed with the women of the WAG, so that any proposals are developed from a partnership between women and men. And we suggested that they get from Edwin a format for a grant proposal that could be given to possible funders.

In Peace,
James Arana

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May 28, 2008: Wednesday IRC Staff Meeting in the Palava Hut

On Wednesday mornings, there is a weekly staff meeting at the IRC office. At 8:30am sharp, the generator is shut down, the power goes off, and everyone leaves the building to gather in the “palava hut” in the yard.

After announcements from all departments, and a security report about an increase in armed robberies, Steven and I were introduced to the IRC staff. We launched into our history with the Male Involvement Program, and our tag team approach  was great. Staff responded with interest and enthusiasm to what was presented. The men dropped their defenses as they heard about our approach to positive masculinity, and their faces brightened as they heard about the feedback from the men and women from the different communities.

Dr. Atillo raised his hand to make an observation of an experience he had in his office where his attempt to sweep the floor was met with contrary feelings from the woman, who felt that he should not be helping with the cleaning. We explained that because it is a new experience, it can feel uncomfortable for her and that even women have to get used to the idea of men helping out in this way.

Edwin took Steven and I to the community called “Chocolate Factory” to meet with the Woman’s Action Group and the Men’s Action Group who will have their official opening day ceremony for their new Women’s Center on Friday at 10am. We hope that there will be time for us to join this celebration tomorrow after our staff training and before we leave for the airport.

They were proud of this new community center and are looking ahead to becoming a formal community-based organization. Mr. Ben made an impassioned plea for support to help take the young women off the streets by providing different kind of trainings that will lead to employment and self sufficiency. We explained that this is something we’ve heard from several community partners, and that we would pass this idea on to IRC.

In Peace,
James Arana

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May 29, 2008: National GBV Task Force

Today we traveled back to the Ministry of Gender and Development office for a meeting of the National GBV Task Force. The meeting was attended by over 30 representatives of various national and international NGOs. Unlike the meeting I attended in November 2006, most participants were Liberian.

After a tedious protocol of reviewing last month’s minutes, and a reading of statistics collected, we had 15 minutes for a presentation about the GBV program. We had also invited leaders of the women and men’s action group in Chocolate City, Ben and Zoe, to talk about the impacts of the program on their community. Along with Ester Karnley, Advocacy Manager at IRC, we were a great team. There were many questions and requests for assistance in developing male involvement, and we encouraged other agencies to use IRC staff as a training resource.

During the afternoon we facilitated a workshop on male involvement in GBV prevention for IRC staff who were not part of the GBV program. Two GBV staff, Ester and Edwin, did a brilliant job of engaging the group in two activities (Beliefs About Men and The Man in the Box), and modeling how women and men can share leadership together. They drew the group into the discussion in a supportive and encouraging way that made everyone feel respected and valued. This was followed with a slide show we had prepared about the history of male involvement in the GBV program, beautifully narrated by the four GBV staff who were present. The slide show ended with pictures of men’s projects in Zambia, Nigeria, Rwanda and the United States.

After more questions and discussion, we ended the workshop with each person describing a next step they could take. The responses were beyond our expectations. The two IRC Deputy Directors talked scheduling regular times when GBV staff could lead more discussions. Many spoke about talking with their wives or husbands. Others suggested inviting staff partners and children to a similar program. One man, an IRC driver, said for many years he has transported GBV staff, but never really knew about the program. Now he will be going home and talking with his wife about these ideas. Other men said they were very much changed by the experience and wanted to know if IRC could help them set up a men’s action group in their community. Gertrude said this was the first time a GBV program was well received by other IRC staff. The feeling in the room was filled with encouragement and possibility. As the IRC Deputy Director, Elijah said, “Liberia is really ready for this now!”

In connection,
Steven Botkin

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