NEW KRU TOWN, MONTSERRADO COUNTY, Liberia - For 19-year-old Agnes, being born in the shadow of civil war meant growing up quickly.

Her mother was a market woman and was often forced to leave Agnes and her brother, sometimes for days at a time. When she was just 7, Agnes was helping her brother fry some fish when she accidentally fell into the hot cooking oil and was severely burned. She carries the scars today.

“I’m lucky that my brother saved me before my face got burnt. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me,” she says.

As children, Agnes and her brother constantly saw their mother being beaten by their father and then later, by their stepfather. 

When Agnes’ mother became sick, her husband left, forcing Agnes to drop out of school to care for her. 

“I did all kinds of menial jobs to get us something to eat and soap to do the washing, it was not enough." - Agnes, 19

“I did all kinds of menial jobs to get us something to eat and soap to do the washing,” says Agnes. “It was not enough because my mama had to seek medical help, so I would sometimes ask for money from people,” Agnes recalls.

By the age of 13, Agnes was the sole breadwinner as well as caretaker for her mother. Today, she is also a single mother with a 5-year-old son. The family lives in a rented room of a house made from iron sheets, with wooden partitions to accommodate five different tenants living side-by-side in the same house. 

“It's better than where we were before and here water and electricity are now accessible,” says Agnes. “We live like a family with neighbours. We can even share food and other things. They help me look after my mother and son when I'm away. I do the same for them.”

“When you don’t have anything to survive on, you will be forced to do risky things,” Agnes says, recalling the circumstances of her early pregnancy. “If I was to choose again, I would prefer to be educated… but that is not a problem anymore. Since I started running my business, I am happy and I get respect from the community.” 

Agnes is proud to support her son and mother. Photo: Spotlight Initiative/Helen Mayelle

A NEW START
Agnes was one of 40 girls and young women from vulnerable backgrounds who were selected by their own communities to take part in Spotlight Initiative-supported economic empowerment training. In Liberia this is implemented by UNICEF through a local organization, Defense for Children Liberia.  

Trainees could study catering, baking, tailoring, hairdressing and cosmetics (make-up) but Agnes chose to learn cooking and baking. 

“I chose this course because I know I will always have a ready market. People are always eating!” she says with joy.

Agnes is proud of her newly acquired business and financial management skills. 

“I sold a lot during the Christmas and New Year seasons. Although I spent my earnings, I plan to start over and save to establish a quality catering service in this community. I will make food for meetings, workshops, churches and other big gatherings, like weddings.”

The project ensured that the girls were provided with transportation to and from the institute. Though she disliked early mornings spent travelling to Monrovia, “it was worth the pain” says Agnes. “I always reminded myself of the rewards ahead of me. This motivated me a lot, even during the rainy season, I just jumped out of bed.”

"I always reminded myself of the rewards ahead of me," says Agnes of her training. Photo: Spotlight Initiative/Helen Mayelle

BREAKING THE CYCLE
After their training course, the young women received start-up packages to help them launch their small businesses, with local community leaders providing follow up support. 

“We follow them in the community to make sure that [start up kits] are used for the intended purpose and then continue to follow them,” says Tom Wesseh, Community Secretary in New Kru Town. “As a community, we are very happy that our young women are now putting their hands to work and that they are empowered. Before, most of them were not in school and almost all of them had children at young ages, and are living with their parents or alone. We are proud and happy, and we say thank you to the donors and Spotlight Initiative for this initiative.”

Ina Christensen from the Girls Empowerment Project for Spotlight Initiative in Liberia highlights the critical role of economic empowerment in eliminating violence against women and girls.

“Poverty is a huge problem for us fighting violence against women and girls,” she says. “As long as people remain extremely poor, violence will always have a place in our societies. Moreover, girls from poor backgrounds are more susceptible to dropping out of school early and consequently more likely to become pregnant early and to experience sexual and gender-based violence. We must economically empower these girls to become self-sufficient and break this vicious circle of suffering.”

By Helen Mayelle