20/03/2017 07:51 GMT | Updated 21/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Incredible Women Are Fighting For Girls' Education In Liberia But There's A Long Way To Go

Garmai, Fatmata, Ruth and Esther - Social Workers at Street Child Liberia

In 2005 Liberia made history by electing Africa's first female president. Women turned out in their droves to elect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the country's new leader. It heralded a bright new era of potential for women in this small West African country.

This year will be President Sirleaf's last year in office. She has been advocating for girls' rights over the years. In her annual message this year she said:

"We continue to keep our promise to the women of Liberia who, in large measure, have assured our success... I get the greatest reward from our support to women and girls when a young girl challenges her teacher to be more considerate, pointing out to him that she, too, can become president."

That being said, today Liberia ranks 146 out of 155 countries in terms of gender inequality and 17% of primary school-aged children are not in the classroom. Girls face a range of challenges in accessing a quality education and struggle to remain in school. The primary school completion rate for girls living in rural areas and coming from low-income families is only 13%.

British NGO Street Child's latest report due to be published next month reveals the many barriers that girls face in education and their teams are working with girls across the country to find solutions.

Street Child social worker Fatmata works with girls in slums around Liberia's capital Monrovia, fighting for their chance to go to school. She is one of the many female social workers and teachers working with Liberia's poorest girls to expand their opportunities in life. All too often girls across the country become victims of sexual violence, early pregnancy and marginalization.

Many girls drop out of school at a young age or are forced to engage in transactional sex to fund their education. Thousands have simply never stepped foot inside a classroom - they've never been given the chance.

Even in school, girls face many challenges. Fatmata's colleague Garmaj said:

"Girls sometimes speak to us about feeling fearful in school, getting beat up daily and having to pay money or give their bodies through sex to obtain passing grades. In Liberia, 'sex-for-grades' is a unique problem that affects too many girls. Often girls end up pregnant or they are too fearful of their teachers, so they drop out of school in order to avoid sexual harassment. We also need to help these girls and help sensitise teachers and parents to prevent abuse."

Fatmata, Garmaj and their teams form a vital support network of safe adults for young girls in Liberia. With their encouragement and help, girls are given the chance to determine their own futures.

One teenage mum, Mariama, who is about to go back to school thanks to Street Child's DFID match-funded Girls Speak Out Appeal said:

'I had to drop out of school in grade 7 because my father died and my mother didn't have the money to send me to school.'

She explained that she's so happy to go to school, that she's not scared even though she hasn't been there for a long time. School is giving her the chance to dream big. She said:

'School will do plenty things for me, it will help me make money, go to a vacation place, even America! I will be very happy. I want to be a journalist. Now I will go to 8th grade, then I will finish high school I will go to college and I will become a journalist.'

The barriers that stop girls having the chance to learn:

Street Child's latest report due to be published in April gives vital insights into the views of girls themselves on why education is too often out of reach. Based on consultations with over 1,000 adolescent girls across Liberia, female social workers led group discussions and held interviews with girls about what barriers they face in education and what solutions they would like to see.

The findings of the consultation were loud and clear: girls want to go to school and they are eager to learn but they urgently need support to make this possible. Garmaj said:

"Poverty, peer pressure, commercial sex, teenage pregnancy, abandonment and lack of school materials are some of the main problems that cause Liberian girls to drop from school. We were surprised to find out how often girls are forced to stay home to work and take care of children, when what they actually want to be doing is attending school."

Over 83% of people live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day and lack of income is a very real challenge to girls' prospects of gaining a valuable education.

But it's not just finances that are the problem, social workers said:

"We need to shift the attitudes of parents and communities. In Liberia, people give priority to boys' education and side-line girls. It is a better investment for parents to send a boy to school because they will have the responsibility for the parents later in life. If a family only has money to send one child to school they will most certainly choose a boy. These are ideas that we need to change."

Despite the many challenges girls face, Fatmata and her team remain hopeful that the situation for girls in Liberia is improving. Her team is providing counselling, school materials and helping families to access business grants so that their daughters can stay in school long term. She said:

"Many girls who are out of school know the importance of education for their future and really want to learn and be able to take care of themselves and their families. What I hope and expect is change. I pray that our leaders can see the problems that Liberian girls are facing and help to find a solution."

The team of women moving around Monrovia from morning to evening, working with these girls is paying off. Change for girls in Liberia is coming.

Find out more about Street Child's work with some of the world' poorest girls: