Then and Now: Looking Back at a Decade of Girl-Fueled Activism in Liberia

Women leaders around the world are transforming their own families, communities and countries by standing up and raising their voices for girls’ and women’s rights. And women like them have been leading this kind of change for generations.

Rise Up invests in these leaders and their vision for change by strengthening their advocacy capacity to advance systemic, national-level change through improved laws, programs and funding and eventually shift behaviors and norms. We activate women and girls to transform their lives, families and communities for a more just and equitable world through investment in local solutions, strengthening leadership and building movements.

Since 2009, our powerful network of over 500 leaders has directly benefited 7 million girls, youth and women—advocating for over 100 laws and policies impacting 115 million people in Africa, Latin America, South Asia and the U.S. And as we celebrate 10 years of global impact for girls and women, we can’t help but look back at two Rise Up leaders, from the beginning of our journey together, and reflect on a decade of their impactful work in Liberia.

THEN: 2010

In 2010, Rosana Schaack, Executive Director of Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness (THINK), met Aisha Cooper Bruce, Program Director for Social Empowerment at Helping Our People Excel (HOPE), through Rise Up’s program in Liberia. Rise Up selected the two women to be part of our first cohort of Liberian leaders; at our week-long Advocacy and Leadership Accelerator, both women learned, alongside an international cohort of leaders from Ethiopia and Malawi, how to develop effective advocacy strategies, mobilize resources and engage girls and decision-makers in their work.

During the Rise Up convening, these visionary leaders realized that they shared a mutual interest in Liberia’s Children’s Act—and could leverage one another’s expertise to maximize their chances of successfully advocating for passage of the law.

The Children’s Act would comprehensively address the needs of Liberian children in a major way. It would secure children’s rights to education, healthcare and inheritance, among many other significant provisions. It would mean that for the first time in the country’s history, every Liberian child would be guaranteed rights in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter. And it would specifically address many problems that disproportionately affect girls—including limited access to education, widespread sexual exploitation and harmful traditional practices.

After the Accelerator, Rosana and Aisha submitted a joint proposal to implement their advocacy strategy for the passage of the Children’s Act, and Rise Up funded them. With our technical support, HOPE and THINK adopted a multi-faceted advocacy approach that included partnering with government ministries, meeting with senators, engaging with existing networks, training adolescent girls and youth activists and leveraging media to raise community awareness.

THINK had been working on adolescent girls’ health for many years and was actively participating in many established networks and partnerships. HOPE had been working on adolescent girls’ empowerment and provided expertise in communications strategy and youth development. Understanding the importance of strategic partnerships, HOPE and THINK actively participated as members of the Child Protection Network and collaborated with UNICEF Liberia and the Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development on their advocacy initiative. 

Aisha and Rosana also built the capacity of the Children’s Parliament, the highest advocacy and representative body for children in Liberia. Together, they trained over 70 adolescent girls and youth activists on children’s rights and gave them the tools they needed to advocate on their own behalf—including those from the Children’s Parliament as well as local girls’ clubs. These young people, like 14 year-old Shennel, became an integral part of the campaign, advocating directly in the Senate for passage of the Children’s Act.

After a year of advocacy efforts by civil society groups and youth leaders, the Liberian Senate passed the Children’s Act on September 15, 2011. The Act became one of the most comprehensive pieces of children’s rights legislation enacted in Africa, representing a monumental step forward for adolescent girls in Liberia. 

NOW: 2019

Since the passing of the Children’s Act, Aisha has continued to make great strides in advancing the rights of girls in Liberia through girl-centered advocacy and youth leadership development. With Rise Up’s continued support and in partnership with Girl Up, HOPE has established “Girl Clubs” in nine public schools across five counties in Liberia, empowering young girls with knowledge of their rights and encouraging them to become leaders in their community.

“These young ladies are real advocates,” said Aisha. “We have a generation of young women who know that they have rights and the ability to make lasting change in their lives and in the lives of other girls. They say, ‘I do have a voice.’ Their level of confidence, energy, exposure and opportunity have opened up, and amazing girl leaders are developing.” 

HOPE also established the Girls Advocacy Forum—a network of more than 200 girls who have been trained as advocates throughout Liberia and are promoting awareness and advocacy for laws and policies that affect them. Aisha’s hard work has also led HOPE to the creation and adoption of the “Manifesto for the Development and Empowerment of the Liberian Girl Child,” one of its greatest policy accomplishments. The document was created by the Girls’ Advocacy Forum and was endorsed by the former President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2016.

The Girls’ Manifesto specifically highlights priority issues for the empowerment of adolescent girls and young women: sexual and reproductive health and rights, education and personal leadership development and cultural and traditional practices. Under it, leadership and career development programs and services will be created within girls’ schools, enabling more girls and women to reach decision making positions. Girls will also have rights to adequate information and services for their sexual, reproductive and mental health. Survivors of sexual, physical and mental abuse will have the right to hold offenders accountable for their actions and the ability to receive treatment and counseling. Harmful traditional practices such as negative disciplinary measures and child marriage will no longer be allowed, and the government will be accountable for ensuring that girls’ rights are protected.

The full implementation of the Girls’ Manifesto in Liberia is strengthening and protecting the legal rights of girls and women—including their ‘right to obtain an education in a safe environment, free from harassment, molestation or abuse.”

HOPE continues to drastically improve opportunities for girls in Liberia with support from Rise Up. They partner with key private and public-sector stakeholders like the Ministry of Gender and Children and Social Protection in Liberia to implement the Girls’ Manifesto; and the Girls Advocacy Forum developed the Girls Manifesto three-year implementation strategy for 2018-2021 in consultation with national stakeholders. This document is the official guide that stakeholders will use to inform funds, development and program implementation as it relates to adolescent girls in Liberia. The national-roll out of the strategy started in March 2018.

“My belief is that when there are more women in leadership positions, we will have less of these social, cultural, and health issues that adolescent girls face,” said Aisha. “We are raising a generation of women who will be the new decision makers—and we won’t have to deal with leaders who don’t understand or prioritize women’s and children’s issues because women will be the new decision makers.”

Rosana has also continued to be an unstoppable force for girls and women in Liberia. She runs a safe home, transit center and one-stop clinic for girls and women through THINK, offering services and programs that provide shelter, safety, medical care, counseling, vocational training and life skills to girls and women. But her impact and dedication do not stop there. Rosana was recently elected to the House of Representatives in Liberia, becoming the first woman to ever represent her district. 

“I want to try and make the female legislative caucus stronger than what it is now,” said Rosana. “When you have too many men in the legislature, issues that affect women are addressed at a very slow rate. With so few women in the legislature, I knew I had to run for office.”

In office, one of the things Rosana plans to focus on is female economic empowerment. “My goal is for women and girls to generate their own income,” she explained. “Girls and women need to be able to develop their educational skills and earn a living by making use of the natural resources around them. In doing so, women will have more opportunities and the freedom to live the life they want.” 

Rosana will also help push forward the implementation of the Girls’ Manifesto as a legislator. “The Girls’ Manifesto was put out two years ago and is only now reaching the implementation phase. But now we have nine women in the legislature and four new representatives, so we are going to make the voices of women stronger.”

Rise Up is grateful to have phenomenal women like Aisha and Rosana in our network creating large-scale change through girl-led advocacy and leadership. This dynamic duo successfully passed the Children’s Law, are working to implement the Girls’ Manifesto and continue to do so much to advance the health, education and equity of Liberian girls and women.

Together, we are activating girls and women to transform their own lives, communities and countries for a more just and equitable world.

About and

Kaitlin Chandler Brooks is the Development and Partnerships Manager at Rise Up.
Maryem Torabi is a Communications Intern at Rise Up.