Feature Story

19 June 2008

Young People from Liberia Raise their Voices Against Violence

KAMPALA, Uganda --- Woloquoi Davis was just seven years old when the conflict in Liberia broke out. Rebels slaughtered his uncle and grand uncle before his very eyes. Forced to flee for his life, along with his few remaining family members, Woloquoi ran as fast as his young legs would carry him. Throughout his search for safety and freedom, he witnessed rebels killing innocent civilians and looting and burning the houses and property of his community members.

Youth advocate Woloquoi Davis

The Liberian conflict, which began in 1989, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and devastated the country’s economy. In 2003, the conflict came to an end and communities have had the opportunity to focus on the rebuilding of homes, neighbourhoods and basic infrastructures. But in a country where ritual murder, systematic rape, and torture were commonplace for more than a decade, some have found it hard to leave behind the habit of violence. After so many years, the thread of violence has become intertwined with the culture.

Woloquoi, now 25 years old, is trying to change his world by advocating for Liberia’s young people in the fight to stop all forms of the violence that he says “is destroying the social and moral shape of Liberia”. In his self-appointed role, Woloquoi volunteers for the United Youth Movement against Violence, an organization based in Paynesville City in the outskirts of the country’s capital, Monrovia. The Youth Movement, which teaches young people living in impoverished communities about issues such as gender-based violence through sports, art and other recreational activities, is supported by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

In an interview during the Reproductive Health in Emergencies Conference, Woloquoi talks about how participating in the recreational activities helped him heal from the painful experiences of his past and empowered him to change the course of his life for the better. He also addresses some of the key issues affecting young people in Liberia today, such as the lack of education and the problem of prostitution and he explains why it is beneficial for communities and organizations to invest in young people early on.

What are some of the key issues affecting young people in Liberia today?

First is the lack of educational opportunities. Throughout many communities there are few or no schools. And if there is a school, most young people can’t afford it as there is no one to pay the fees since many have lost their families in the conflict. If a young person has completed primary school, there is hardly a secondary school. Higher education is purely a luxury. That is the problem I am facing myself, as I have finished high school, but can’t afford college now.

Other problems include violence perpetuated both by and against young people such as armed robbery, gender-based violence, teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation and the threat of AIDS. Also related to these problems is the acute poverty in the country which leads to hunger, deprivation, and a high rate of prostitution for both males and females.

What role has education played in helping you to get where you are today?

There is a saying that “ignorance leads one into the deep pit”. I am not in that pit now because of the little education I have received. I have always seen education as my ultimate goal. And even though I have not had a constant flow of support for this goal, I have fought and will continue to fight to get to the highest level that I can possibly reach. This is what motivates me.

As for now, I use the limited education I have. The teaching job that I am doing in the community primary school gives me the small salary that I depend on every day for survival. I have the opportunity to teach and meet great people because of my education. If I was not educated, I would simply not be where I am today!

Can you explain how the United Youth Movement Against Violence was established and what its objectives are?

"These activities encouraged me to move on, to dream, to compete and to succeed. They have given me a reason to again feel human in the midst of my inhuman experiences."
--Woloquoi Davis

The United Youth Movement Against Violence was established in 1995 to gather young people to stand up against all forms of violence that had infested our community and country as a whole. Unfortunately soon after the group of young participants was mobilized, the community was attacked, and we were all isolated from one another. .

Today, the United Youth Movement Against Violence consists of about 150 members in Monrovia and has now spread to 7 of the 15 counties of Liberia. Is objectives are to involve young people in all levels of society where decisions for the future are made and to sensitize young people on the problems that stem from all types of violence, including physical, family, sexual and gender based violence. We also concentrate on mobilizing young people to take action against violence and other youth related issues like education, AIDS, sexual and reproductive health and culture.

What are some other ways United Youth Movement Against Violence works to motivate young people to take a stand against these types of violence?

We encourage young people by using drama, sports, cultural performances and musical concerts that incorporate our key messages, and we involve community leaders in our activities. We also distribute materials such as flyers, posters, T-shirts, banners, stickers, and wrist bands . And we use the media to get positive messages out in a youth-friendly way.

What are some positive changes you have seen in the attitudes of young people participating in the United Youth Movement Against Violence’s activities in regards to sexual and gender-based violence?

In Liberia, girls and women are at constant risk of all sorts of violence in their communities. Some are intimidated and afraid of their community members. Others have decided that sex means nothing and are now involved in prostitution which they consider to be a sign of strength and defiance. In fact, a good number of girls and women are afraid or reluctant to marry because of the violence that exists in the homes with husbands. Gender-based violence is destroying the social and moral shape of Liberia.

However, a good number of girls have benefited from our programme and have decided to abandon prostitution. They no longer see it as a viable alternative. The young men who participate also talk more about protecting themselves and their communities against violence. Many of our activities revolve around these topics and also sex and condoms. As a result, our participants have become leaders in their communities and therefore they have to live by what they preach.

Why is it important that young people in crisis situations have a space to be able to participate in sports, art, theatre, dance and similar recreational activities?

Through these activities, I have been encouraged to move on, to dream, to compete and to succeed. These recreational activities have motivated, empowered and given me a reason to live up to my responsibilities again and to feel human in the midst of my inhuman experiences. Right now, I have my own children’s football team that I coach to be able to help other children that have to deal with such difficult circumstances and have hope.

Why is it important for humanitarian aid organizations to include young people in all stages, such as the implementation and design, of projects that support them?

Young people are resourceful , and I believe that young people are the hope of tomorrow. Therefore if you invest in us, you will have a useful society. Also, if a vulnerable young person does not have help from anybody then he or she will feel that nobody cares for them and will engage in activities that will be detrimental to themselves and their communities.

Woloquoi, how will you work to help young people overcome hardships and find hope in the future?

After I lost my father in 1993, when I was just ten years old, I had no structure or society to turn to, and I wanted to give up. I know I had a choice to sit and dwell over my past and the loss of my family or to do something to make my late father proud of me. So instead, I decided to face life’s challenges and to stand up as a young man and move on.

Now, I want to complete my education. I want to go all around the world and preach messages that will help young people who are dealing with difficult circumstances to know that they can survive and change their lives for the better. I want to be able to say to them, ‘‘Hey, I have gone through terrible situations which are probably worse than most of yours. But I have overcome them and you can do the same my brothers and sisters! If I can make it, so can you!”

UNFPA has supported the United Youth Movement Against Violence since 2007 and the Fund is also actively supporting the Liberian Youth and Adolescent Network on Population and Development. In collaboration with the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, UNFPA is producing a video entitled Youth Zone, which will offer the opportunity to hear from four remarkable young women and men from Liberia, Colombia, Lebanon and New Orleans about the courageous steps they have taken to rebuild their lives, communities and countries