24 November 2016
In seven universities across Monrovia, Liberia's capital, a small revolution is happening. Fed up with sexual harassment and abuse, a group of female students is fighting back, using their own radio show to protect and promote women’s rights on campus, supported by ActionAid Liberia.
Women Speak's different chapters work on different issues, led by the concerns of female students, but they all offer a safe space where women can come together, support one another and raise issues to campaign on – from sexual harassment to the right to wear what they want.
Breaking the silence on violence
With ActionAid’s help, Women Speak use a national radio show to break down barriers and make sure women’s voices are heard in Liberia. They host a talk show on women’s rights that reaches nearly three and a half million listeners across Liberia – a staggering eighty per cent of the population.
ActionAid originally paid for the airtime, but the show has become so popular that private broadcasters now air the show for free.
Jimisha Dahn (pictured below), student and member of Women Speak at United Methodist University, explains why she takes part in the radio show:
"We want to break the silence around sexual violence, harassment and rape. If we don't talk about things it means that the men who carry out these acts don't have to take responsibility for what they do.
I feel like things are changing slowly but we need to see more people come together and stand up for what is right.
"People call into the show and ask us questions. One thing that keeps on being discussed by men is the way women dress. I ask callers, 'What does the way a woman is dressed have to do with anyone?'. I answer that if I choose to wear something that is my right. It does not mean that I should be attacked or harassed.
“Thanks to the support of ActionAid and the work we are doing together as Women Speak ... we are giving women the confidence to speak out. I feel like things are changing slowly but we need to see more people come together and stand up for what is right."
The group helped reduce violence against women on campus
Leona Gomo, head of Women Speak at The United Methodist University, Monrovia, helped to set up the group in 2014 to tackle some of the problems that women on campus face:
"Many women feel that their body does not belong to them. It is not uncommon for men to come and touch us and to grab us. It happens a lot.
"Through the women’s group we help each other understand that this is not right and that we do not have to accept these actions as being normal.
“By forming the women’s group on campus we were able to provide support to each other and work towards changing things. ActionAid has helped us understand we have rights and we must speak up for our rights and not feel afraid of the stigma."
Many women feel that their body does not belong to them. It is not uncommon for men to come and touch us and to grab us.
As well as empowering and supporting female students, Women Speak have successfully lobbied for improved lighting on campus, a key issue holding women back in their studies.
“Before the lights were installed, only a third of evening classes were attended by women," says Leona. "Now almost half of classes are made up of female students. Women say they feel safer on campus when the lights are on.
“I think the men who want to sexually harass women know that they will be found out because of our work and their abuse won't be hidden. This has made a very big difference. It means these men feel they have to be careful in how they behave. It is the first step in changing behaviours for the long term."
Facing up to a global problem
The challenge they face is stark, as Wvyatta Vivian Kamara, President of Women for Change women’s group at the University of Liberia, explains.
"As women, every day, we fear rape. We live knowing that this could happen to us. I wear shorts under my dress, to make it harder for a man to attack me.
"I have had personal experiences of intimidation from men at night. I was returning home from university as it was getting dark and I could see three men in a truck. They followed me as I was walking. I was so afraid.
“Parents will warn their daughters that they need to be careful about being raped and will warn them about sexual harassment. These same parents may not tell their sons not to rape and bother women. These are the changes that we need to see in order for our society to become safer for girls and women."
Women say they feel safer on campus when the lights are on.
The focus on blaming women survivors of violence all sounds sadly familiar. As Finda Callendee, group member at Cuttington University, highlights, violence against women and girls knows no borders: "I'm interested in seeing how the issues we as women in Liberia face are linked with the issues women and girls face in other parts of the world like Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I think women and girls face similar issues in different countries. This is a global problem."
You can raise your voice for the 16 Days of Activism
November 25 marks the start of the ‘16 Days of Activism on Violence Against Women’ when, every year, women’s rights campaigners around the world come together to demand an end to this violation of human rights.
To mark the start of the 16 Days, three women leading women’s rights organisations in Myanmar, Kenya and Somaliland have written a letter to the UK government's international development minister Priti Patel calling for more aid funding for grassroots groups like the incredible Women Speak.