Liberia is a small country on the northwest coast of Africa and home to 3 million people. Founded in 1821 by liberated American slaves, its name means "land of the free." For the past two decades, however, life for Liberians has been a struggle. In the early 1980s, a bloody civil war broke out when civilians revolted against their repressive dictator, Samuel Doe.
Eventually, he was overthrown from power and expatriate Charles Taylor was elected president. But the violence and chaos continued. Women were gang raped, their husbands were executed and thousands of children were given guns and taught to kill. Under Charles Taylor's reign of terror, more than 250,000 people were murdered. In 2003, he was forced to resign.
Today, the scars of war can be seen everywhere. The country lacks running water and electricity, and schools and hospitals have been destroyed. More than 80 percent of the people are unemployed and most live on less than one dollar a day.
In November 2005, for the first time in more than 20 years, the people of Liberia got to freely vote for a new leader. Their choice made history when a 67-year-old grandmother of nine became Africa's first-ever elected female president—President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was born in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. She married right after high school and had four sons. Then, she made the difficult decision to leave her children behind to come to the United States for her education. She waited tables to pay for three college degrees, including her Master's at Harvard University.
After graduation, she returned to her family in Liberia determined to help her unstable homeland and worked in the Ministry of Finance. After speaking out against the ruling military regime, she was thrown in jail twice. When Johnson-Sirleaf was released, she was exiled to Kenya and went to work as an economist for the United Nations.
She returned to Liberia in 1997 and made her first run for President against corrupt leader Charles Taylor and lost. Then in 2003, peacekeeping troops stabilized Liberia. Johnson-Sirleaf ran for the presidency again and on January 16, 2006, she was sworn in and became Africa's first elected female leader. Her historic inauguration was a celebration for women around the world. First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice were both on hand.
President Johnson-Sirleaf is determined to make good on the promises she made to the people who put her in office. But she says implementing reform after years of civil war is a long and difficult process. "[I'm] trying to change attitudes—habits in discipline, lawlessness—that have characterized the country for so many years and trying to get people to appreciate an education."
In many parts of the world, women who are victims of rape have little or no protection. To address this shocking reality, one of the first things President Johnson-Sirleaf did for the Liberian women was to pass a law that makes rape illegal. She says rapists will no longer go unpunished under her watch. "We're not going to have that anymore," says President Johnson-Sirleaf. "We are going to enforce the law."
President Johnson-Sirleaf says education is foremost on her agenda, particularly for girls. "In our country, much of Africa, the girls get left behind," she says. "The boys are seen as the ones that will be the power brokers, the ones that will be the professionals. Girls get married very early and so the emphasis will have to be on the girl child. And so we're trying to respond to that, make sure we get programs that will support girls' education."
One of the greatest challenges President Johnson-Sirleaf says she faces is building schools. "We can't do it with the resources the country has, we have to just be progressive—work at it," she says. "We've got partners in the country, some other donor countries that work with us. The U.S. is one of those that are working with us. The European commission is working with us. We're trying to expand the partnerships."
Before the war in Liberia, there were more than 2,000 schools. But when the fighting ended, 80 percent of them had been destroyed. Now only half of all the children in Liberia are able to attend school—and for the children who do, it is a struggle.
Nine-year-old Musu is one of the fortunate girls in Liberia. She attends a private school in Monrovia. But during the last days of the war, a rocket blast ripped off her hand. Having a daughter with a physical handicap make Musu's parents even more determined to make sure she gets an education. They make a few dollars a month growing and selling potato greens. But from year to year, they never know if they will have enough money to keep Musu in school.
Their hard work is paying off. Musu says she loves school, and has learned to write well. "When I grow up, I want to be a doctor," she says. "I want to be a doctor because a doctor helped me with my hand."
Thanks to President Johnson-Sirleaf, Musu is here to say hello—all the way from Liberia!
Grammy-winning singer Sarah McLachlan performs her socially conscious song, "World on Fire," from the CD Afterglow. After brainstorming different ideas for the music video, Sarah says her director approached her with a groundbreaking idea. Instead of the usual $150,000 or more that it takes to produce a music video, Sarah created the entire "World on Fire" video herself for just $15. Then, she spent the left over money to help more than 1 million women and children around the world. In the video, Sarah spells out exactly how the donated money was spent. See the groundbreaking video at www.worldonfire.ca.
"I love this. ... It's about getting every one of us to look inside of ourselves to see, 'What can I do?'" says Oprah, "'How can I be of service to the world?'"
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