14 years of Civil War has had an unprecedented impact upon the surviving children in Liberia and their younger generation. The many orphaned children in Liberia have lost not only a familial structure but also safety, freedom, peace, and hope. From the “chronic deplorable conditions” of orphanages suspected to have engaged in child trafficking, to the forced prostitution of young girls and reliance upon substance use by young boys, the situation of orphans in Liberia remains an ever-pressing issue.
The Liberian Civil War
1820 saw the return of freed slaves from America and the Caribbean to the West coast of Africa. Upon their return, the Americo-Liberian peoples held prejudiced and discriminatory opinions against Liberia’s indigenous population, perceiving them as savage, second-class citizens. Such ideological aggression was apparent for many years and worsened in 1980 as Master Sergeant Samuel Doe decided to insight a military coup with the backing of Liberian soldiers against the Americo-Liberian rule. The vote was cast to legitimise his control of Liberia, but he remained unsuccessful and unintentionally encouraged the first Liberian Civil War in 1989 when Charles Taylor and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) seized control of the state. He led a vicious regime for the following decade until the nation erupted into violent conflict over beliefs that Taylor was supporting rebels in Sierra Leone. A rebel group named the Organisation of Displaced Liberians thus implemented a string of attacks, and Taylor lost control of the country. As the State of Emergency was declared, Charles Taylor was exiled to Nigeria in 2003, encouraging a vast peacekeeping mission by the United Nations. However, ethnic tensions remained ever-present, and violent outbreaks resulting from the Second Liberian Civil War continued for many years following the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Orphaned Children in Liberia
As a consequence of such a drawn-out and bloody conflict, Liberia is still faced with the overwhelming matter of orphaned children throughout the nation. The International Red Cross estimates that at least some 10,000 ‘unaccompanied’ young people are living in Liberia. Each child is surviving under unique conditions; however, the key to survival is vastly different for male and female orphans. In an ideal world, these children would be given shelter in orphanages that would ensure the children’s access to education and give them the best possible start in life. However, the reality of the situation of orphans in Liberia vastly contrasts with this ideal. Liberian Orphanages have experienced many forced closures in the years following the end of the Civil War as international human rights and protection services have discovered many of the institutions to be unlicenced, failing to meet basic qualities of care, hygiene, and safety, with issues of trafficking, exploitation, and neglect.
School attendance has been found to be protective for orphaned children but is proven to be inaccessible alone or with new caregivers who cannot afford to allow their children to attend school instead of earning an income to support the family unit. The adoptive parents of orphaned children are faced with issues themselves, such as shortages of food, water, and access to healthcare, especially worsening as the Ebola epidemic hit in 2014. Therefore, they are struggling to make ends meet in order to support themselves and their own children and, thus, cannot financially justify putting their adoptive children through school. More often than not, children are adopted for the benefit of their secondary caregivers rather than their own. Therefore, being taken in after the loss of their parents likely means that the children are subject to neglect, abuse, and exploitation at the hands of substitute caregivers.
The Position of Female Orphans
After the loss of their parents, female orphans in Liberia are much more likely to be taken in by wider family members or friends of the family to provide secondary care. As these young girls are forced to live vulnerable lives in poverty, they are often subject to sexual abuse and exploitation from both strangers and supposed caregivers. Transactional sex becomes almost vital to the survival of these young women as they are coerced into sexual acts in return for the prospect of shelter, food, and money. Upon losing their parents, these young girls are forced to be responsible not only for themselves but also for elderly family members who offer to take them in or the children of their newfound caregivers. Their responsibilities include homemaking, cooking, cleaning etc., and this prevents them from attending school. They also lack support from social and enforcement services, who simply do not have the funding or resources they need. Therefore, the orphaned young women in Liberia are forced to live in unsafe conditions where they must work to live, where, on average, the main source of income for these children is transactional sex.
The children of Liberia have lost their parents, support network, and home. This trauma is supposedly resolved when a substitute caregiver or caregiving role is found, but such roles only inflict further trauma upon the children and decimate their mental health even more. That is, assuming that the children are even able to access such relationships.
The Position of Male Orphans
The majority of orphaned young men are less desirable to wider family members and have a more difficult time, on average, finding shelter. Thus, they resort to escapism through substance abuse and are much more likely to be inclined to display violent behaviours. Due to the levels of violence and deaths witnessed by young people during and after the Civil War years in Liberia, the majority of orphaned children suffer mentally at the hands of the trauma they have experienced. As most of the orphaned boys are left without a home after the loss of their parents, their traumatic experiences are magnified due to their new lives of poverty and vulnerability. Being homeless, mentally distressed, and without a source of income, it is all too common for these young men to turn to substance use as a form of escapism. Naturally, these behaviours can quickly develop into an addiction to abusing substances as circumstances fail to improve. This threatens to breed a generation of angry young men as a product of their environment who fail to see any hope for their future. Subsequently, these boys’ mental health is diminished even further, with cases of depression and an inclination towards suicidal thoughts and violent behaviours continuously at high levels.
Many years on from the Civil War, the conditions in which orphaned children are living remain an ever-present issue. The vast number of orphans throughout Liberia is a devastating issue in itself, yet the consequences of losing parents in the nation appear to be much worse. For the orphaned young men and women of Liberia, hope and aspirations for the future remain low due to the environments they have become victims to. I believe that, in exploring the gender-based differences of orphaned life, it has become abundantly clear that what the children of Liberia are facing is not simply trauma and poverty but an injustice to their safety and security. As the Liberian society finally begins to heal from the horrors of the Civil War, its children maintain a life of suffering and pain.
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