(WOMENSENEWS)–Massa Cousli knows what it’s like to run behind trucks loaded with goods, waiting for the moment something drops off, and then scramble to claim it as merchandise to sell.
That’s because she’s a "market woman," an umbrella term in Liberia encompassing all types of street vendors and petty traders.
More than a decade of civil war sharply increased the number of households headed by such women, many of whom lost husbands and relatives during the civil war that raged from 1989 to 2003.
Without skills and education, often their best option was selling in the marketplace, from the surplus goods on their farms, locally grown produce and other food items purchased from small farmers, or whatever else they could round up.
"Being a market woman means walking a long, long way barefoot, suffering," Cousli, an informal leader of market women, said last summer at a gathering at the New York Ethical Society in New York. "We had to carry guns on our heads for the rebels. During the war, market women were raped and became widows because our husbands were killed."
Since the election of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose grandmother was a market woman, the term "market woman" has become one of political respect and gratitude. That’s because many of these women made names for themselves during the civil war by marching and negotiating for peace. They provided pivotal campaign support to Sirleaf.
After her 2005 election, Sirleaf began thinking of ways to pay the market women back.
Within months, a group of international supporters of Liberia and Africa gathered in New York to work on launching a fund for the market women. Its purpose: raising money for a national rebuilding of the markets, which serve as multi-purpose social centers, providing day care facilities, schools and clinics.
In 2007, its first operational year, the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund raised $1.2 million and attracted contributions from the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Development Fund for Women and other donors. That year it also renovated nine markets, established a Web site and promotional video.
Summer Outreach to Donors
Last summer, Cousli, who works out of the Frog Island Market, one of the first in the nation’s capital Monrovia that was rebuilt after the civil war, was at the New York event to help Liberia’s president increase donor interest with an "Adopt a Market" campaign.
"Tonight we want to say thank you to the women who have borne the brunt of the difficulties the country faced," Sirleaf told her New York audience last summer. "Institutions became dysfunctional. It was the women who went out to look for food. It is the market women who worked to get me elected. They left the markets and went into the villages and prayed and campaigned for me and gave money from their meager earnings. I owe my success to the market women."
Sirleaf said the women were not asking for much. "They just want to be able to sit in a place where they could have a stall, a place to store their food so there is no spoilage, so they can earn enough money to send their children to school and the little kids that go to the market with them can go to preschool nearby while they do their work."
The Sarah Blakely Foundation, based in Atlanta, and the Global Fund for Women, based in San Francisco, wound up among the donors who came forward after the event.
As the global economy worsened last year the new fund managed to raise around $600,000, less than its $1 million target.
Philanthropy Still Has a Pulse
"Giving is moderately dead, but not completely," says Libby Bassett, a spokesperson for the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund.
The fund’s Adopt-A-Market campaign allows individuals, organizations, corporations and large institutions to help renovate or build the markets in Liberia. A $350,000 contribution builds a complete urban market with all services, $10,000 will help build a nursery school, $75 helps train a market woman in entrepreneurial skills.
In Monrovia, over two-thirds of all women work in the markets, according to the fund.
There are some 37,000 market women in all of Liberia. Many have six children or more. Approximately 75 percent of Liberians live on less than $1 a day. More than half are estimated to live at below 50 cents a day. Unemployment in the formal sector is estimated at 85 percent. During the 14 years of civil war, the market women sustained their families, saved lives and kept food supplies flowing in dangerous times.
"Though they do not know exactly when their market will be up for adoption, the women are all enthusiastic about the possibility of being next," says Sekou Konneh, the market women fund’s director in Monrovia. He said they know about the campaign through their national organization, the Liberia Marketing Association.
50 Markets in 4 Years
Although 2008 fell short, the goal of the fund is to raise at least $1 million annually, to build or rebuild 50 markets over the next four years. The money will be used to improve existing markets and construct new ones based on a model that includes nursery schools, storage, health and sanitary facilities. The funding is also designed to foster credit facilities for market women, training in literacy and small business concepts, and other services.
According to Konneh, there is no other money that goes directly to the market women. But groups like the World Bank provide some support to market rehabilitation.
The markets’ main hopes, however, is with the fund, since Sirleaf has no money to provide and is working to cancel chunks of Liberia’s debt. In 2008 the International Monetary Fund and World Bank cleared Liberia’s entry into a global debt relief program, which would go a long way in helping the country cancel nearly $5 billion in debt. Earlier this year Sirleaf was in credit talks with the Paris Club of sovereign creditors.
The Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund is a sub-fund of the African Women’s Development Fund, an Africa-wide fundraising and grant-making organization based in Accra, Ghana, which has had a U.S. arm in New York City.
Since 2000 the African Women’s Development Fund has awarded a total of nearly $8 million to 575 women’s organizations in 41 African countries.
Dorothy Davis, a board member for African Women’s Development Fund, says Africa gets aid money from all over the world but that not enough targets women, who are the majority of Africa’s poorest people and become hungrier and poorer as costs rise for essentials such as gas and food.
"There is a need to feminize development money," says Davis, who is from Liberia.
African Women’s Development Fund grants range between $1,000 and $50,000 and there are some multi-year grants of $120,000. They are awarded to strengthen women’s human rights, political participation, peace building, health and reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS and economic empowerment.
Despite the often dire needs of African women, Davis says she gains strength from her interactions with the African women she meets through her work.
"They bring to the table a certain level of raw honesty, but with dignity," she says. "They make you stop and think. You feel like you’re talking to the salt of the earth. When you see what they do with what they have, it’s engaging, moving. It’s inspiring to us, it’s empowering to us. What more can we do, what more can we become?"
Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer in Long Beach, N.Y. She specializes in personal finance, small business and general business.