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As a preliminary step in the development of its gender-focused behavior change communication (BCC) tools for faith leaders, CIFA has undertaken a three-country research study in Liberia, Nigeria, and Ethiopia.  With funding from the Nike Foundation, CIFA is identifying and highlighting the stories of courageous faith and traditional leaders (FTLs) who have positively influenced social norms to benefit women and girls in their countries.  

Spiritual leaders are uniquely suited to speak out about a variety of development topics, particularly sensitive issues addressing cultural attitudes and practices that may be harmful to members of their society.  They are also uniquely placed to understand the circumstances that constrain the lives of women and girls in their congregations and communities, and to take culturally acceptable leadership to advance their well-being.  They often stand up in courageous opposition to social norms that constrain the health, rights or advancement of young women, and their examples of faith in action can serve as a clarion call to other faith leaders around the world.  

This study therefore consists of gathering such stories through semi-structured interviews with courageous faith and traditional leaders who have put into practice their spiritual principles, their compassion for their people, their concern for girls in particular, and their position of influence to advocate and act for the well-being of girls in their communities. The research will initially result in a series of short films and a report from each country, highlighting the best stories of faith-based advocacy for girls in each country.  Beyond this, we intend to capture the best practices learned from these qualitative interviews, for use as foundational material for the development of faith-based communication tools and curriculum, to equip other religious leaders across the globe to “go and do likewise.”

The ultimate aim of this study is to demonstrate that religious leaders can and do have a positive influence on girls’ lives, and to inspire similar advocacy and action in other FTLs through the development of training curricula and the sharing of best practices.

During the last two weeks of August, the CIFA research team commenced the first of the three studies in Monrovia, Liberia and its environs.  Sarah Day, Manager for Health Programs, and Jana Spacek, Gender Programs Coordinator, collaborated with in-country research partners in Liberia to conduct 17 primary interviews with faith and traditional leaders themselves, and 8 secondary interviews with congregants and community members who have been impacted by the work of these FTLs—either young women who have directly benefitted from their advocacy, or other leaders whose attitudes and/or actions towards women have changed as a result of the influence of these FTLs.  

One of the highlight interviews was with Rev. Kortu and Mrs. Mariamo Brown, husband and wife who are partners in ministry.  In addition to being founders and leaders of a prospering church, and leaders of an umbrella organization of Pentacostal churches in Liberia, the Browns founded a dynamic NGO during the Liberia civil war.  At a time when almost all international NGOs withdrew from Liberia, and many Liberia leaders fled the country themselves for safety, the Browns made a conscious and courageous decision to stand their ground, and to remain right where they were.  This decision was followed by a series of decisions to remain in the country, as many instances of personal danger and many opportunities for self-preservation arose over the 11 years of the protracted conflict.  However, the Browns not only remained in Liberia, they started an NGO called the Concerned Christian Community (CCC) during the heat of the war, when the government and every other civil society organization shut down. As Rev. Brown said, “When the NGOs ran, we stayed… the Church stayed.  So when do you divide ‘church’ and ‘state’? [Only] during times of peace.”  

They established CCC to meet the needs of their war-torn community, and as it was the only Liberian NGO that was operational during the war, the need was great. One million people were internally displaced in Liberia, and over seven million people were displaced externally.  During the war the CCC negotiated with the rebels for the safety of the people in their region, and they established a school in 1991 to keep the children occupied in the midst of the upheaval.  When girls were being raped in their community, they stood up to the rebels and said it was unacceptable, and began providing psycho-social counseling to these young women. Most of the female staff members working for CCC were rape victims themselves, n fact, but “you have to forget about yourself and keep working” to help others they say.  The Browns started working in an area that was closed for 9 months, sharing what they had with those in need.  They started an orphanage in this area as well, but 18 children ended up dying of starvation due to the blockade.  Eventually, the CCC snuck in a photographer to document what was going on, and when those photos were sent to the UN and the newspapers, the road was finally forced open.  The CCC distributed 30,000 tons of food on behalf of the World Food Program from 1992-1998, reaching 300,000 beneficiaries. They also gathered together all functioning churches in Monrovia to provide emergency crisis intervention in the national stadium, which consisted of a 5-fold model of work:

1.    Psycho-social counseling (particularly for women and girls raped during the war)
2.    HIV/AIDs awareness
3.    Medical treatment
4.    Skills training
5.    Relief supplies

In 2003 the CCC gathered the Church community and together and approached then-president Charles Taylor, telling him “it’s time to quit.” Through their influence, Taylor finally agreed to leave.  As Mrs. Brown says, “We were able to achieve peace through the Church, through the ‘Threshold Bill”! …only the Church was able to influence people” and bring an end to the war. Thus the faith community “has played a crucial role in this country.”

Having in Liberia throughout the war, seeing women not only being victims of war, but also staying at the front lines and acting as leaders and healers, the Browns were affirmed in their conviction that women play a crucial role in rebuilding the country.  Today, they are channeling that conviction into literacy training programs for women and girls.  Recently the CCC graduated 100 women from their literacy program, and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attended the graduation, commending their efforts to build up women in Liberia. Their perspective is that literacy and education are the best ways to empower women to be equal partners in the re-building of their country, but “Girls education has to come from the girls themselves…they have to [first] be empowered to understand their basic rights to education.”

Conclusion

"Change cannot be imported; it has to come from within [the community]”
"Why is it important for the Church to work at the local level? “The Church IS the community.”
“The Church is a force for transformation!”
“Some leaders do not know the power of the Church.”

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