Liberia probes US charity in wake of sexual allegations

Liberian authorities have launched an investigation into United States charity More Than Me (MTM), in the wake of several teenage girls coming forward to reveal alleged sexual assault at schools run by the organisation.

MTM was founded by American citizen Katie Meyler in 2008 who saw the plight of young girls — living in slums, at risk of being sexually abused and not receiving an education — during a visit to the country.

While Meyler focused on fundraising for the school in the states, she entrusted Liberian citizen Macintosh Johnson with helping to run the school on the ground, identifying young girls not in school and taking care of the pupils. Meyler has taken a leave of absence as chief executive officer.

Johnson was arrested in 2014 and died of an AIDS-related illness in 2016 in prison while awaiting a re-trial.

MTM started by funding 30 children in 2010 and the first school was officially opened in 2013. The organisation was able to end up with 19 schools catering to 4 000 students.

The investigation into the sexual assaults was first published in October 2018 by Time magazine in partnership with US-based nonprofit newsroom ProPublica.

President George Weah has described this saga as a “sad and tragic story” because Johnson, who was responsible for “protecting young girls from sexual exploitation” ended up being the person who hurt them.

Women and young girls in Liberia have had to bear the brunt of rape being used as a weapon of war since the first civil war in 1989. The legacy of sexual assault in the country continues to today.

Weah quoted statistics from the ministry of gender noting that there have been close to 900 sexual and gender-based violence cases reported from January to September 2018. Of the 900 — 475 of the cases involved children.

“Today, more than 15 years after the war, Liberia continues to grapple with high incidences of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls,” Weah said.

According to the ProPublica report, Johnson raped many of the pupils on school premises and in his house and threatened to take away their scholarships or even kill them if they exposed what he was doing.

The report also details how the community knew what was happening with people like Johnson’s ex-girlfriend attempting to tell Meyler who didn’t heed their warnings. The investigation says there were many “warning signs that were missed” from the very first year.

Following the expose by ProPublica, the MTM board issued a statement denying any inaction on their part on the alleged abuse.

“As an organisation whose enduring mission it is to support the most vulnerable girls in Liberia by getting them off the streets and into schools, More Than Me is deeply sorry that in 2013 and 2014, a former staff member who was recommended to us highly was able to exploit his position to commit sexual assault.”

The board also said that it had taken “swift and immediate action” to help the girls once they came forward with their stories and has made changes in how the schools are run.

“We have strengthened our hiring procedures, school security, whistle-blower policy, anonymous reporting, staff code of conduct and teacher/student interactions, with the sole intent of protecting our students.”

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