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20 March 2017

Women’s rights heroine from Liberia: “I am good at motivating other women.”

Theresa Dunbar has been working for almost ten years as a psychosocial counsellor at medica Liberia. This “normal village woman” is now responsible for three districts in Sinoe, a region in south-eastern Liberia, and is helping to shape the struggle to improve women’s rights. Lena Reul from medica mondiale spoke with her during a project visit. She was inspired by the energy and passion Theresa showed in her engagement for women in Liberia.

“I have been with medica Liberia since 2008. I was just a very normal woman in my village when medica Liberia began to organise information and public awareness events in our community. Up until then, we women had put up with beatings and violence from our men as something normal. Medica made us stop and think. We became aware that women have rights, too.”

Training as a psychosocial counsellor

“I joined a self-help group and began to work voluntarily in my community. In February 2008 I took part for the first time in a training course from medica Liberia for volunteer community helpers. Shortly afterwards I was selected as a trainee to become a counsellor. During this period I mainly went on house visits. In 2016 I began working at district level as a fully trained psychosocial counsellor.” “Previously I had no idea what strength and power I would be able to find within me. I am good at motivating other women. I knew that one day I would be capable of helping and supporting others.”

Women take decisions into their own hands

“When I started volunteering in our community I realised that as a woman I have a mission and can be a light for other women. I made it very clear to my husband that he cannot stop me doing this. Today when I look back I can see how the women’s motivation has grown over the years. Now women take decisions into their own hands As a district counsellor I support the solidarity and support groups in the communities of this district. In every community there are four or five contact women who I supervise, and there are also men actively supporting women’s rights. I also give training sessions. The women in the communities know me.”

“I like almost everything about my work. My work is my passion. But at first it was really hard.”

“Men used to work and earn the money for the family. Many men had several wives and girlfriends. However, now the women have become more educated and courageous. Most of them can earn their own living. Men can no longer pull them down. Previously most of the women were dependent on the men’s financial support to bring up the children. But access to resources is still one of the main challenges for women. Especially if women rely solely on men.”

“I am satisfied with much of what we have achieved. But not everything. We have not yet brought about a deep change in behaviour. Really long-term behaviour changes do not happen overnight – they need time. But I am certain it will happen one day. And it will be good.”

“I remember one survivor who had been abandoned and ostracised. She was always completely dependent on men. Now she has learnt to stand on her own two feet. There was someone there for her, holding her hand. That is what makes us special: we offer long-term support for the women. We don’t let them down or turn our backs on them, but instead we help them until we are sure their own strength is sufficient.”

Passionate commitment

"When we select women to lead the self-help groups, we look for women who act out of passion and can motivate and inspire others. That is our main selection criterion. When we visit the groups now, we see that the self-help groups have moved on to organise themselves and, for example, write their own reports. They are proud of the organisation and proud to be part of an NGO with its own regional office in Greenville.”

“Now the important thing is to keep working. We will continue to support the existing groups and refresh their motivation, in order to ensure the groups survive long-term. Our great aim is still to see women living free from sexualised violence.”

Background to the medica mondiale series

"Women’s rights heroines in the focus” Truly equal rights for women and men are still not reality – anywhere in the world. But without them there cannot be an end to sexualised wartime violence and there will not be peace – anywhere in the world. During the year we will present remarkable women and men from all over the world who have been or are active in the fight for the rights of women. We do this to pay tribute to their individual efforts and achievements, and also to remind us all that active commitment is still needed if we are to achieve gender justice and an end to sexualised violence.

Read the Story of Grace Arach from Uganda