Mr. Kimmie Weeks, YAI Executive Director (only male, way in the back) sandwiched by jubilant graduates
Mr. Kimmie Weeks, YAI Executive Director (only male, way in the back) sandwiched by jubilant graduates

“Turn, turn YAI has turned it around; turn, turn YAI has turned it around; we were nobody YAI has made us somebody; turn, turn YAI has turned it around,” the audience burst into celebration.

 The Liberian gospel music echoed across the Airfield New Road community, attracting scores of community residents and passerby on Friday, July 2, 2010, when the Youth Action International (YAI) held the second graduation program of its Women Empowerment Center.

 The center, established in 2008 to train women in profitable life skills, has changed the lives of more than 200 women as a result of skills provided students free of charge.

 Therefore, it was no surprise when the 114 graduates, all women, decided to burst into celebration, when one of them was called to make a remark on behave of the graduates.

 Madam Mabel Quedeu applauded the Executive Director of YAI, Mr. Kimmie Weeks, and the YAI family for changing their lives. She said most of them entered the school with practically no knowledge of the skills they acquired.

 “Today,” she said, “many of us are now earning money from our new skills and are now contributing to the successful running of our homes.”

 As she raised the song (“Turn It Around”), the graduation program turned into a mini-dance party for at least five minutes, as the women danced and chanted: “We were nobody Kimmie Weeks has made us somebody, Turn, Turn YAI has turned our lives around…”

What a unique way of empowering women to become respected and strong partners in their homes, in their communities and in their country!

The YAI empowerment program is irrefutably another momentous way of promoting gender equality and strengthening women, especially the ‘have-nots’ and ‘less fortunates’ to overcome their underprivileged conditions. It is definitely a remarkable approach to helping this often deprived group of people to rise up on their feet from the dudgeon of marginalization to the heights of success.

 Indeed, the issue of gender equity and women empowerment remains a major global problem, taking center stage on the UN’s human development agenda.

 Gender equality and women’s empowerment are human rights that lie at the heart of development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, according to the UNDP.

 Despite the sustained global efforts and progress over the years aimed at emancipating women from various forms of discrimination and back benching, six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are still women and girls; less than 16 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women; two thirds of all children shut outside the school gates are girls; and, both in times of armed conflict and behind closed doors at home, women are still systematically subjected to violence.

 Six out of ten of the world’s poorest people are women who must, as the primary family caretakers and producers of food, shoulder the burden of tilling land, grinding grain, carrying water and cooking. This is no easy burden.

In Kenya, women can burn up to 85 percent of their daily calorie intake just fetching water, according to statistic from the UNDP. The situation in Kenya is no different from Liberia, where women spend their days in the chilling rain and scorching sun (depending on the season) to fend for food for their homes.

 Here, women, especially those in rural parts, must go on the farm to fetch cooking woods, they must make gardens to get bitter balls, eggplants and potatoes greens for sale to feed the homes or send their children to school, and to pay for medication.

 In Monrovia, little children, girls, are seen jostling themselves among cars in heavy traffics, risking their lives, to sell cold water, peanuts, candy, bake bread, oranges and cool aid, among others, to help their mothers, grandmothers sisters or aunts feed their homes.

Instead of being in school, they are bread winners, and most of them grow up without having the opportunity to go to school, to acquire skills or to become responsible citizens and future leaders.

 Because of these situations, most girls suffer fall to teenage pregnancies and become parents, when they are still children. They grow up as women who are complete liability on men, some of whom are cruelly treated. This scenario is not only limited to Liberia, and women in many poor countries face the burnt of hardship and bleak future.

Despite efforts such as Resolution 1325 that specifically seek the wellbeing of women and their empowerment in terms of gender equality, some 75 percent of the world’s women cannot get bank loans because they have unpaid or insecure jobs and are not entitled to property ownership. This is one reason why women comprise more than 50 percent of the world’s population but own only one percent of the world’s wealth.

 According to the UNDP, Equality between men and women is more than a matter of social justice – it’s a fundamental human right. But gender equality also makes good economic sense. When women have equal access to education, and go on to participate fully in business and economic decision-making, they are a key driving force against poverty.

Women with equal rights are better educated, healthier, and have greater access to land, jobs and financial resources. Women increased earning power in turn raises household incomes. By enhancing women’s control over decision-making in the household, gender equality also translates into better prospects and greater well-being of children, reducing poverty of future generations, the UNDP alludes.

YAI program for women empowerment is unquestionably walking in the path of raising women from their poverty state to a position they are able to fend for themselves without relying on their male counterparts. So, the women were not crazy when they heartedly sang out their joy and danced: “…We were nobody YAI has made us somebody; turn, turn YAI has turned our lives around.”

YAI is an international nonprofit working to rebuild war-torn African communities. It work to provide economic empowerment and education for war-affected youth (ages 13-30). Its programs include: women’s empowerment, micro lending, early childhood education, former child soldier reintegration, vocational training, agricultural training, and health care awareness.

Since 2005, YAI’s programs have benefited more than 150,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. About 100,000 West African youth have benefitted from its youth empowerment program, 5,000 children have benefitted from playground construction, among others.

YAI was started and inspired by acclaimed youth activist Kimmie Weeks, a survivor of the Liberian civil war. At age nine, after nearly being buried alive as a result of disease, hunger and suffering, Kimmie pledged his life to helping children.

Making remarks during the festive July 2, 2010 graduation exercises, Mr. Weeks said he was pleased to see the graduates and their families celebrating after the (graduates) had acquired new skills.

The women learnt skills in baking, tailoring, beads making, and cosmetology, among others.

“It’s a happy mood for me to see this graduation happens, Weeks said, adding, it reminds me of the sacrifice each day we have to do to make these program happen.”

The acclaimed Liberian rights activist said it was not an easy task to run such an institution free of charge and lauded donors such as UNIDO, Youth Empowerment Network, Humanity United, among others for their unflinching partnership in bringing changes in the lives of unfortunate people. Weeks said he did not care what detractors say about him (eating donors money and enriching himself) but was focused on serving humanity in his own way based on resources he generated from speaking tours and other personal incomes.

He said others claim they do not see what YAI is doing in the country but the women empowerment center was just one of the at least 15 programs the NGO runs in Liberia. “It’s just that we are not the one to go all over to talk about all the things we do all the time. We are doing it to impact the lives of the people, we are not doing it for publicity,” he noted.

Mr. Weeks said despite the challenges, he will continue to lobby for support to work for humanity, especially the young people “who I believe in so much.” He claimed it was not difficult to make a difference in poverty-stricken Liberia, but people who have the potential to do so were mean to their fellow compatriots, especially the less fortunate.

“Its so simple to make a difference in Liberia, but I… wonder why lots of people are not doing it, Weeks asserted and continued: We have people who are very, very wealthy in Liberia; they have money: some of them by legal way, some by hook and crook. Whatever it is, there are people with money. But how many of them,” he wondered, “use some of these monies to do something for young Liberians?”

The right activists said these same people (money people) are the ones who complain and criticize government of not doing anything.

The YAI boss then challenged the graduates to be good ambassadors of the center and must preserve to make good use of the skills acquired to make YAI proud.

He reminded them to remain steadfast because there would be many challenges ahead, but they should be dynamic and try new methods when one fails.

As the program ended, one would tell that these women would never be the same. Some of them left the graduation with cash from the materials they had made and brought for exhibition.

Almost all of the cakes brought were dealt with, because like their bakers, they, too, had been turned around. By D Kaihenneh Sengbeh; 2316 586 531; dakasen1978@yahoo.com

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