The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Liberia’s Education Crisis: Quality v Access

This post by Laura Golakeh, a 2015 summer intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women, was originally published in The Analyst, a Liberian newspaper. It is posted here with permission.

Laura GolakehOn March 11, 2021, the House of Representatives passed a bill seeking to “create a special education scheme to support deserving students attending public tertiary institutions across Liberia. The Bill is titled “An Act to Create a Special Education Fund to Support and Sustain the Tuition Free Scheme for the University of Liberia, All Public Universities and Colleges’ Program and the Free WASSCE fess for Ninth and Twelfth Graders in Liberia, or the Weah Education Fund (WEF) for short. The bill when enacted into law, will make all public colleges and universities “tuition-free”. The passage of this bill by the Lower House has been met by mixed reactions across the country: young, old, educated, not educated, stakeholders, parents, teachers among others, have all voiced their opinions about this bill. While some are celebrating this purported huge milestone in the education sector, others are still skeptical that this bill may only increase access but not address the structural challenges within the sector. I join forces with the latter, and in this article, I discuss the quality and access concept in our education sector and why quality is important than access. I recommend urgent action to improve quality for learners in K-12.

While this may sound like a broken record, an overview of our context is key in addressing the pertinent issues in my article. Liberia is still rebuilding its damaged education system after more than 14 years of crisis. Additionally, structural inequalities and the recent Ebola crisis in 2015, have contributed to challenges facing the education sector. While some gains have been made, Liberia is still behind many sub-Saharan countries in most education statistics. Poor learning outcomes, overage enrollment, unskilled and unqualified teachers, poor infrastructure are among some of the many challenges facing the sector. There are no national school quality standards and no proper monitoring mechanism at the county and district level. In 2013, all 25,000 candidates seeking admission at the University of Liberia, Liberia’s oldest degree granting institution failed the entrance exam. According to an official, the candidates lacked “enthusiasm and a grasp of basic English”. To put that into perspective, 25,000 individuals who went through K-12 lacked basic English skills needed to thrive in college. I put it that, quality is the issue, not access. A closer look at the following stats may help us understand this more clearly. It is no secret that Liberia has made progress in providing access to education, but has made limited progress in retaining learners. A World Bank report in 2016 showed that, of children who enroll in primary school in the country, 69 percent ‘survive’ to grade 6 and 59 percent ‘survive’ to grade 9. On the other hand, in the Education Quality and Access in Liberia (EQUAL) study, the mean score for Grade 3 oral reading fluency was 19.9 correct words per minute, compared to a mean score of 25 correct words per minute on the EGRAPlus assessment, and an average of 18.9 correct words per minute for Grade 3 students assessed by the Liberia Teacher Training Program (LTTP) II study. International benchmarks associated with literacy and comprehension are set at an oral reading fluency of between 45–65 correct words per minute. Again, the issue is quality and not access. It is not enough for a learner to have a seat in the classroom, the emphasis for policymakers is to guarantee that learner has quality education while they are sitting in that seat. The emphasis is to fix our broken system and ensure adequate funding for our schools. The emphasis is to overhaul our K-12 system and ensure our learners are graduating with relevant skills to succeed in their personal and professional endeavors. As one of my mentors and former boss said in a recent post on social media, we “cannot fix the roof while the foundation is collapsing”. This is a complete error in judgment. A careful review of the sector has brought me to the conclusion that focusing on quality in the system especially, K12 should be a key priority. Policymakers should also be cognizant of the following issues:

Teacher Quality and Societal Perception of Teachers: Goal 4 of the United Nations Sustainability Goals aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. Teachers therefore are needed to play a key role in achieving this goal by 2030. According to a World Bank report, about 62 percent of Liberian public school teachers are not qualified. Additionally, teachers especially public-school teachers are underpaid compared to other professions in the country. The “salary of teachers in Liberia range between US$140 to US$500 per month depending on their level of education. The lowest paid teachers, certificate holders, earn between US$100-US$ 140 while B certificate holders’ pocket US$ 180-US$ 200”. According to a study by the Center for Global Development conducted in 15 African countries, “teachers are paid either a lower or comparable monthly salary to other wage workers with similar educational background in three-quarters of African countries”. These issues make it difficult for the system to attract qualified teachers, hence the influx of unqualified teachers. According to an IREX report, research conducted to study perceptions of the teaching profession in Liberia showed that the profession is viewed by many as low compared to other professions in the country. It is true that a greater part of a teacher’s experience is based on how society views them and the profession in general. Countries like Singapore have the best education system because reverence for its teachers is well documented.

Bottomline, increase teacher’s compensation, provide professional development opportunities, ensure teachers are monitored and evaluated and engage in an advocacy and outreach campaign to change societal perceptions of the teaching profession. It is widely known that the social status of the teaching profession impacts recruitment and retention of effective teachers. Recent findings from the Global Teacher Index 2018 study suggests that there is a correlation between teacher status and student learning outcomes and that increasing teacher status can directly improve the pupil performance of a country’s students.

Reform Student Assessments: Education leaders need to promote a comprehensive and rigorous assessment systems that contribute to quality education. Student assessment reform is also a powerful stimulus for quality improvement in higher education and its reform goes well beyond the domain of assignments and examinations. Ensure classroom and large scale system level assessments are put in place to not only assess learning in the classroom but also continuous evaluation of the education system. Particular emphasis should be made to encourage teachers to design formative assessments that reflect students’ learning outcomes and that track individual students’ growth, rather than focusing on comparing students with one another. Teachers should be taught the necessary skills and expertise to carry out these assessments. A reform assessment module will serve to diagnose student learning issues, provide feedback to students on their learning, inform teaching, communicate with parents about their child’s learning, and meet school-level requirements on assessing student achievement. The goal is to graduate from traditional assessment to 21st century assessment.

Bottomline, ensure an enabling environment, system alignment and improve assessment quality.

21st Century/Competency Infused Curriculum: I wrote in a previous article, that a competency infused curriculum for education is essential for all learners in Liberia. Curriculum and quality works together. Our curriculum needs to be reformed to reflect our learners developing cognitive skills, practical skills, attitudes, emotions, values and ethics and motivation related to cooperation for learners. A quality education is one that prepares learners to be global citizens. The World Economic Forum defines global citizenship skills as those that focuses on building awareness about the wider world, sustainability and playing an active role in the global community.

Bottomline, a competency infused curriculum will lead to better learning outcomes for learners and better prepare them to thrive in the 21st century.

Gender Nudge: Gender awareness drives quality. In Liberia, as well as our education system, patriachal tendencies have led to a greater disadvantage for female and other vulnerable learners in classrooms. Poverty, disability, early marriage and pregnancy, gender-based violence, cultural ideals about the status and role of women in our society have helped build obstacles for female learners. Inorder for Liberia to ensure quality education for its citizenry, these gender related issues need to be addressed adequately.It is without any doubt that education policies and programs are bound to fail if gender is not mainstreamed in its designs and implementation.For example, a policy that wants to ensure that girls and women thrive in educational institutions should take into account that institutions do not work without interacting with and getting influenced by societal or cultural factors such as family, state, media and society. As a result, educational institutions are forced to perpetuate the stereotypes held against women in society. Such influences can stop women and girls from realizing their potential in academia as they are forced to encounter issues of discrimination, sexual harassment, dominancy of males among others.

Bottomline, mainstreaming gender in education policies and programs as a prerequisite for quality education.

Lastly, the Liberian Government needs to invest resources in the sector. Lawmakers should work with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to allocate more budget support for the sector. Liberia education spending for 2018 was 8.06% of its GDP, a 0.2% decline from 2017. Recently, civil society organizations in Liberia protested over an 8 percent decrease of the education budget from 570 million in 2018/2019 to 525 million in 2019/2020 national budget.

The education system is in serious need of a “fix” not a temporary political solution. I choose quality over access.


Laura Golakeh is a gender and education expert. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Gender and Peacebuilding and is currently a student at Harvard University pursuing a Master’s in International Education Policy. During the summer of 2015, Laura was an intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women. 

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Canada Steps Out Front on Funding Feminist Futures Worldwide

equality fundThis week, Canada launched the Equality Fund, the world’s largest global fund for women’s and trans* equality movements. Its tagline, “Funding Feminist Futures,” clearly conveys the fund’s purpose. Having already mobilized $100 million worth of initial investments to accompany a $300 million multi-year funding award from the Government of Canada, the consortium-led fund is slated to mobilize at least $1 billion over 15 years. Members of this consortium include the MATCH International Women’s Fund, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), Calvert Impact Capital, the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), Philanthropy Advancing Women’s Human Rights (PAWHR), Toronto Foundation, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Yaletown Partners, World University Service of Canada (WUSC), and Oxfam Canada. This diverse collaboration reflects a holistic and strategic multi-sectoral approach to ending gender inequality sustainably around the globe.

Leading feminist funders are expressing enthusiasm and characterizing the Equality Fund and as a monumental move forward. As Musimbi Kanyoro, outgoing CEO of the Global Fund for Women, stated, “We all celebrate the Equality Fund and the leadership of MATCH International, with solidarity support from all women’s funds. This is a game-changer.” The Global Fund for Women has seen firsthand the critical role that feminist funds play in ensuring the survival and growth of grassroots women’s funds and movements. Noting this history, Kanyoro reflected, “It should have come sooner, but we are on a new trajectory of recognition for women’s funds.” Incoming CEO Latanya Mapp Frett opined, “The Equality Fund recognizes that women know best how to solve problems for themselves and for their communities, and putting resources in the hands of women funding women will ensure that violations of women’s human rights will soon be part of our past.”

Abigail Burgesson, Special Programmes Officer at the African Women’s Development Fund, who just completed her term of service as a member of the Wellesley Centers for Women’s Council of Advisors, played a key role in the evolution of the Equality Fund by helping to bring the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) aboard, and echoed Kanyoro’s and Frett’s assessments: “The Equality Fund is a real game-changer because it is designed and managed by feminists who have advocated for this for a long time.” Recounting her time spent working on the initiative, Abigail related, “I saw the resilience and strength of the feminist spirit at work, which crafted the entire architecture of this novel and unprecedented fund.” She further went on to say, “It was women who created this historic moment in our lives.”

We at the Wellesley Centers for Women applaud this innovative initiative and look forward to advancing gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing in concert with like-minded organizations and individuals all over the world. We each have a role to play, and it takes all of us!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a member of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund for Women.

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Seeing the Wealth in People: The Power of Youth in Liberia

Tina Wollie, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, Dr. Layli Maparyan, Mama Tormah of Traditional Women United for Peace. Photo credit: Tina WollieRecently I returned from Liberia, which USA Today just rated as the poorest nation in the world. It was a bittersweet trip, because Liberia is a land I love, and it wasn’t always at the bottom of this list. And yet, over the ten years I have been connected to Liberia—through work to advance women and higher education, as well as through marriage and family—and particularly over the last year, I have witnessed changes in people’s fortunes, for better and for worse.

Liberia is a small country of about 5 million people—not much bigger population-wise than Greater Boston, where I live now, and not much bigger land-wise than where I came from, namely, the state of Georgia. It is the kind of country where “almost everybody knows each other” and a person—from villager to government minister—is never more than a few degrees of separation from anyone else. It is the kind of country, then, that could easily serve as a laboratory for effective social change and a test model for various human wellbeing schemes.

Many such schemes were launched, with mixed success, during the historic two-term administration of Liberia’s first woman and first post-war head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. President Sirleaf brought women to center stage, and brought the world’s spotlight to the possibilities for gender development in Liberia. It was a thrilling ride to watch people, nations, and organizations from around the globe invest in Liberia and President Sirleaf’s great experiment. There are still some residuals from that effort today, although some of the initial gains have also been eroded.

Last year, after closely watched yet ultimately peaceful elections towards the end of 2017, Liberia welcomed a new government. H.E. George Manneh Weah, a former soccer star who was the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and who previously held a senatorial position in the Liberian legislature, is now President of Liberia, representing a different party than his predecessor. Notably, he has made youth a priority of his administration—a shrewd choice given that youth were among his most enthusiastic supporters and youth now comprise about 65 percent of Liberia’s overall population. For context, the African continent as a whole is expected to have around 1 billion youth by 2050.

Youth are a source of creativity and innovation in every society, but also a population in need of investment and guidance all over the world. Could Liberia become a laboratory for forward-thinking youth programs under President Weah, just as it was a laboratory for innovative approaches to gender issues under President Sirleaf? This question was on my mind as I toured the country, meeting with government officials, new university leadership, representatives of various NGOs and community-based organizations, as well as many youth themselves.

Some prognosticators see danger in Africa’s youth bulge, focusing on a supposed causal chain that links youth unemployment to youth unrest, and, ultimately, youth radicalization. In the gender arena, these same prognosticators tend to raise the alarm about adolescent sexuality and parenthood, particularly as they pose risks to girls’ educational outcomes and correlate with sexual violence and exploitation of girls and young women. These are all very real issues, but they are only one lens through which to view the realities and futures of African youth.

Liberia's Minister of Youth & Sports, Hon. Zeogar Wilson, affixes a WCW bumper sticker to his official vehicleAnother view—one that I would like to align with the research and action of the Wellesley Centers for Women—is one that sees (and contributes to) hope, promise, and enthusiasm in and with regard to African youth and their prospects. An approach that asks African youth for their own perspectives and aspirations, one that embraces African youth and their insights and talents, and one that takes the historical, political, economic, structural, and systemic context of African youths’ lives into consideration—and, at times, challenges those—is the one I would like not only to endorse, but to operationalize. It is an approach that sees the wealth in people, not just one that sees the poverty created by their circumstances. It is also an approach that cultivates African youth leadership.

One of the most touching moments of my entire trip was when I met with the Minister of Youth and Sports, the Hon. Zeogar Wilson, along with a number of his deputies and the Honorary Consul General for Liberia, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, with whom I was traveling. During the meeting, I handed Minister Wilson a folder of information about the Wellesley Centers for Women. Inside the folder was a large bumper sticker emblazoned with WCW’s famous motto, “A World That Is Good for Women Is Good for Everyone.”™ As soon as our meeting was over, Minister Wilson said, “I’m putting this on my car immediately,” and we all walked together to his official vehicle, where he affixed the sticker for all to see.

Even though our meeting had focused on youth issues, the conversation had resonated with themes of equality and empowerment—for boys, for girls, for women, for all. Minister Wilson “recognized the connections,” as intersectionality theorists are perpetually encouraging us to do. His whole team was clear that youth issues encompass gender issues, and approaches to youth empowerment are enhanced by maintaining a gender lens. I left feeling good that the past had informed the future for Liberia’s youth.

People often ask me, as I scout the world for international partnership opportunities for WCW, why I pick particular countries over others. Isn’t China more important, they ask? Isn’t Europe easier? Why not just stick close to home, when there’s so much going on in the States? But my answer is always this: We go where the need is greatest and where the opportunities for practical, felt impact are most immediate. We look for the places that have been overlooked, and the places where the opportunity to widen the circle is greatest. We also go to the places where we have the greatest potential to be transformed by what we learn.

As an established, highly-successful, economically secure women- and gender-focused research institute in the global North, WCW must use the tools at our disposal to tip the scales in the direction of global equality—not only gender equality, but also equality with regard to the power of data to shape the fortunes of populations and nations. This is the kind of partnership we are wedded to, and the kind of partnership that comes from seeing the wealth in people where others only see poverty.

Layli Maparyan is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. An expert on Womanism, her scholar-activist work interweaves threads from the social sciences and the critical disciplines, incorporating basic and applied platforms around a common theme of integrating identities and communities in peaceable, ecologically sound, and self-actualizing ways.

Photo 1: Liberia's young women are in the forefront of change. L to R: Tina Wollie, Hon. Cynthia Blandford, Dr. Layli Maparyan, Mama Tormah of Traditional Women United for Peace. Photo credit: Tina Wollie.

Photo 2: Liberia's Minister of Youth & Sports, Hon. Zeogar Wilson, affixes a WCW bumper sticker to his official vehicle. Photo credit: Author.

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Human Rights, Women’s Rights: Plodding Toward Progress

beijing platform conferenceA press conference during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Credit: UN/DPI 071031/Yao Da Wei

This article, by Susan McGee Bailey, was originally published on the Girl W/ Pen blog on March 20, 2015.

“Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.” Jean Hardisty (1945-2015)

March is Women’s History Month, but the history being made in the U.S. is far from uplifting. Women continue to be an easy batting ball for political impasses. We continue to struggle for basics readily available in most other developed nations: e.g. paid family and sick leave, adequate childcare, health and reproductive rights. As an antidote to setbacks in this country—where we seem to be in the two-steps-back phase of the old ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ adage—I’ve looked at reports released in conjunction with this month’s 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There are some encouraging signs. But progress is slow, uneven; the struggle for women’s rights and equality is far from over. Nevertheless, celebrating positive accomplishments can provide motivation needed to keep us all plodding ahead, no matter how soggy the road. Jean Hardisty knew better than anyone how critical plodding along is. For all of us around the country—and in various corners of the world— who knew Jean as a beloved colleague, mentor and leader in the battle for human rights and justice, there is no better way to honor her life and her work than to keep on plodding.

So, some good news gleaned from reports on progress for women since the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing:

  • The global rate of maternal deaths in childbirth has dropped by over 40 percent;
  • Adolescent births have fallen by more than 30 percent;
  • Many countries have made significant gains in girls’ education, particularly at the primary school level;
  • And people everywhere are paying more attention to gender gaps in access and opportunities on everything from health services and education to leadership, employment, and earnings.

Sadly, for almost every positive statement one can make, there is a ‘but’. And some ‘buts’ are so overwhelming it seems pointless to mention the positive. For example, awareness of violence against women has grown, but the violence itself has not lessened. A third of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is estimated that the number of girls among trafficking victims has increased by more than ten percent in the past seven years.

The Beijing meetings two decades ago were electrifying. A total of 17,000 women and men from 189 countries attended the official Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Another 30,000 took part in the parallel NGO Forum held outside the capital in Huairou. We returned to our homes around the globe committed to doing whatever we could, both individually and collectively, to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Many of those unable to attend the meetings in China were eager partners. In country after country, women and men worked together to ensure the "full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life."

But the transformative promise of the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fulfilled. The Platform was a call for a change in focus from women to gender. A call for recognizing that the structure of society and relationships between women and men must be rethought if women are to be fully empowered as equal partners with men. The Platform affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality benefits everyone. In retrospect these called for changes in thinking and action were exceedingly ambitious given the ten-year time frame originally stated. Even after 20 years we have not succeeded. But ambitious goals generate ambitious plans, and ambitious plans are required to sustain commitment, passion, and determined action.

As the Women’s Rights Caucus stated last week in response to the draft declaration from CSW: “At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability.” Some UN member states may not share this perspective. Nations that do must speak loudly. Within a few days over seven hundred and 50 organizations had signed the caucus statement. NGOs representing women from all parts of the world and all strata of society must push, and push hard to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the Beijing Platform is carried forward.

None of this work is easy. Much of it is unpopular in certain circles. But we have pushed and plodded our way this far. A 40 percent decline in maternal morbidity is a major step forward. The progress in access to primary education for girls is impressive. Many more huge steps await. We have done it before; we can do it again. And again, and again, and again!

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D. served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. She attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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