Liberia’s Roadside Signs Promote Cultural Change

A billboard in the town of Ganta urges citizens to put more women into positions of power. In President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country has the first female head of state in Africa. However, her gender minister Julia Duncan-Cassell last month made the unfortunate assertion that most rapes are reported, when it is widely agreed among experts on gender-based violence that a high majority of rape cases go unreported. ethanbaronphoto.com

Most of the Liberian population cannot easily afford the 55 cent (Canadian equivalent) cost of newspapers, and have little or no access to electricity to power radios, or money to pay for batteries. Much of the public outreach by organizations promoting positive social and health practices takes the form of signs and billboards by the roads. Along the paved streets of the capital Monrovia, along potholed dirt roads in the interior, even along crude forest tracks, these signs urge Liberians to take care of each other, and themselves. Because an estimated 40 per cent of the population is illiterate, many signs contain images – often graphic – meant to be understood by people who can’t read.

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Gender-based violence (GBV) remains a major and persistent concern in Liberia. “GBV reached

 

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astounding levels during the war and continues today. While there have been no formal surveys, researchers hold that 40 per cent of all Liberian women are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery and physical assault,” says a report from the American Refugee Committee.

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In spite of a 2009 government order to halt it, the practice of trial by ordeal, known as “sassywood” after a lethal concoction made from a tree of that name, continues in in rural areas where access to formal justice is limited.┬áPeople accused of crimes or believed involved in witchcraft are made to drink sassywood, and are deemed guilty if they die. The government banned the practice after two publicized deaths in 2009 that were followed by the discovery of five butchered corpses believed to have been the result of ritual killings.

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Reports from 2009 estimated 1.2 per cent of the Liberian population was infected with HIV.

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Years of civil war that ended in 2003 flooded Liberia with guns. A firearms amnesty collection program from 2003 to 2006 is believed to have taken nearly 30,000 guns out of circulation, according to the 2009 Small Arms Survey, an annual study of firearm numbers throughout the world. The 2007 Small Arms Survey found rates of civilian gun ownership to be 1.6 per 100 citizens. In November 2012 the Liberia National Police confirmed a rise in armed robbery throughout the country, but did not provide statistics. The national police responded to the reported increase by banning the operation of motorcycle taxis after 10 p.m. throughout the country, saying motorbikes were involved in many of the robberies and subsequent shoot-outs with police. Taxi drivers have decried the limitation on their right to a livelihood.

The U.S. government Global Health Initiative reported that childhood malaria prevalence in Liberia dropped to 32 per cent in 2009 from 66 per cent in 2005, but said the disease remained the leading cause of death in the country.

 

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