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BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Home Correspondent
Daughters of War
By Jane Labous
Producer: Polly Hope
Introduced by Pascale Harter
Pascal Harter: More than a decade of particularly brutal war has ravaged this country, only ending in 2003. Now, in peace time, it's becoming all too clear what those years took from Liberians, and the toll those lost years are continuing to take. In a town in the north of the country, Jane Labous looks at how women survive.
Blessing’s room is small and stuffy, and around the mirror are pasted photographs of her children, 13 year-old Estelle, 10 year-old Peter, and nine year-old Alice.
Every night, Blessing looks at them as she brushes her hair and puts on her single pair of yellow high heels. Then she walks along the dusty path from her home to the main road to look for customers, men who spend a dollar to lie down in the grass with her and have sex.
In one of the photographs, yellowed and wrinkled in the heat, a smiling Alice wears her school uniform, a white blouse and green pinafore. Blessing unsticks the photograph from the mirror and hands it to me.
“Yes, I'm a prostitute,” she says, “but then my children are in school.”
Blessing calls herself and her friends, hopojo, or sex workers. She missed out on school during Liberia's civil war between 1999 and 2003, and like many young people here in Boma County, has been left with no education and no skills.
This town, Tubmanberg, was the scene of one of the worst massacres during the war. Most women with children here are single mothers, many of them working as hopojo because they can't find anything else.
Meanwhile, the men who should be their husbands are so traumatised and so disempowered by their own lack of schooling and subsequent unemployment, that they no longer want responsibility, marriage or relationships. Instead, they searched for no-strings-sex.
Earlier I'd met John, a former child soldier who rolled up his sleeve and showed me the machete scars on his arm.
“We just don't feel anything anymore,” he admitted. “How can we have relationships when we saw our mothers raped and killed in front of our very eyes?”
That afternoon, I meet some of Blessing's friends in a zinc-roofed hut. It's still and hot, and the sunlight filters through the wooden shutters. The women tell me about the rapists and customers who got them pregnant, how selling sex is the only way they can feed their children.
“My life is so miserable,” says Mama, “but what's the point in crying? Because who will come to help me?”
Cassa began sex work when she was 10, and gave her two children away to other families because she couldn't support them. Silver wears a t-shirt that says, ‘don't hurt me’ across the front in gold letters. She was gang-raped in the war by four men. Her face is impassive.
When I ask how she feels about sleeping with strangers for money, “it doesn't make me feel fine,” she murmurs, “but what to do?”
Carmen sobs as she tells me how she too was raped, age 11, and how if she doesn't go on the streets, she and her son can't eat. Afterwards, I ask them whether they think love exists between men and women.
They murmur collectively and shake their heads as though the answer is obvious. “Love,” says Blessing with a shrug. “Just leave it alone.”
The atmosphere lifts when we talk about solutions. All these women are desperate to leave the streets. They want to run businesses and support their kids through school.
“I always tell my children that education is the key to success,” says Blessing, and I think of the photograph and her smiling daughter.
On a new hopeful path, Carmen leans forward with eyes blazing with strength as she tells me that she can do anything a man can do. For these women, a bright future is no longer about love or marriage. Their eyes are now on other prizes. “Someday we'll be gone, and our daughters will be left,” says Cassa. “That's all I want.”
Jane Labous is now returned from Liberia.
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