By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.
Historical and cultural factors, principally the civil war, exacerbated rural to urban migration and chronic poverty (structural impediments, limited opportunities, long-term joblessness, deprivation of basic needs – food, shelter, security combined with grief and loss sustained for prolonged periods), which in turn, have negatively shaped the functioning of the contemporary Liberian family system. However, very little has been written in the academic and/or popular press concerning the Liberian family. The minimal writings on the topic direct their efforts at propagating faith-based views on teenage promiscuity and pregnancy. An exception is a popular press article that this author wrote in 2008 entitled: “The Liberian Family in Peril…” It argued that the national debate on family policy is sparse, although the family system is critical to rebuilding the essential components of the failed state. It acknowledged that Liberian families are diverse more than they are homogenous, noting that the distinctions arise out of their multiethnic and multicultural backgrounds. It provided some of the basic challenges that the post-war Liberian family was facing and highlighted the resilience of the family system. This article builds on that analysis.
Are there some striking differences between the pre-war and post-war Liberian family systems and structures? Did the civil conflict have negative influences on the timing of family formation? Is the existing socioeconomic context influencing the stability of marriages, the flexibility of gender roles, patterns of parental involvement in child care/development, the volatility of household composition, and the cultural resources that families have available to overcome misfortunes? If the formation of a household does not originate in marriage, but the birth of a child, and many Liberian children are being born when the mother is not married to the biological father, what are the implications for the future of the society? If children born outside of wedlock face decreasing prospects academically, socially, and in life, and single and/or absent parenthood is on a rise, what does that mean for the future of Liberia? If all these form the demographic portrait of the Liberian family system, what picture does it paint of the nation’s future?
The distinctive feature of the longstanding Liberian family structure is well known. Most people reside in close-knit extended families. An extended family consists at parents, grandparents, children cousins and more. In some traditions, ancestors are included, noted for their spiritual guidance. Put another way, strong marriages (bi-sexual relationships) and commitment to one’s extended kin have been central features of the Liberian family system. This family system, some observers assert, remained the dominant structure until the civil conflict dislodged and destabilized the society. Others argue that the deterioration of the Liberian family started long before the war. Despite when it started, during trying times, the extended family system has always served as a means of coping with hardship and instability. The focus of some observers on the pathology and disorganization of the Liberian family system ignores its enormous resilience against insurmountable odds, especially the strength of extended kin ties that has tended to stabilize the family in difficult events. Compared to previous other Liberians before them, this generation has undergone unresolved collective grief, loss, and psychological distress, even trauma caused by war and the Ebola outbreak. The resilience showed in the face of such devastation cannot be overstated.
It is worth mentioning, is the fact that there is lack of adequate data to trace long-term national trends in the Liberian family structure. There are limited or no established family sociologists, anthropologists, demographers, social scientists and/or historians steep in context-specific empirical evidence about the subject. Sometimes single moments in time observations are made by practitioners without empirical evidence or comparative value. It has been difficult to determine, if the communities on which such observations are based are representative of the larger population. The census could be used for this purpose, but that too might be incomplete due to challenges associated with the existing data. It would require imposing a consistent set of definitions and codes on the data, establishing an order and maximizing the potential for valid and reliable analysis for long-term change. Until now, no national study has been done to provide such an evidence. Why has time been spent on what seem a purely academic matter? The answer is simple – there are both ordinary citizens and academic who read these articles and send comments on their merits.
In essence, changes that the family system is undergoing serve as important gauges for understanding the future or life course of the society. The tap roots of all our national problems reside within the family. The erosion of the family system is having corrosive effects on all aspects of our lives. And until that is attended to, the challenges will continue to fester and grow. The census’ definition of the basic unit of enumeration is the household, and truly that has changed in Liberia over time, although we are unable to pinpoint the nature of that alteration precisely. Heads of household, their marital status, age, and gender have in some ways changed over time from the 1950s and 1960s when the current generation leading the nation were reaching maturity. During this period, the primary family structure was married couple households, sometimes polygamous, coupled with the presence of many relatives residing in the home. But over time, we have seen the growth of fragmentary households – single parents residing with their children, although there have been cases where extended households, including additional kin, such as grandparents and grandchildren of the household head have been present, including the occasional presence of children-in-law of the household head. Furthermore, another noticeable change in the emerging family system is that the overwhelmingly male-headed nuclear structure is being replaced by rising levels of female-headed households. The size of female and single person-headed and unstable households are increasing.
These striking changes in the feature of the Liberian family structure have implications for where the society is going. This is not to suggest that in any society household composition must be static. But the living arrangement of the family can be linked to the dominant socioeconomic values of each society at a given point in time. This then brings one to the fact that there is also a growing number of Liberian children who do not reside with their parents. The growth of single and/or absent parenthood in Liberian society might mean that the foundational elements of the nation are shifting. If the numbers of children residing with their parents are decreasing, this change could mean that the next generation of Liberians might have missed out on some important value transfer in their upbringing. Parental absence is said to be directly, although not exclusively, a producer of delinquency and many other psychosocial ills. Parental death during the civil war was on a rise, and the Ebola outbreak also increased the numbers of orphans, many underage, and without any identifiable caregiver due to stigma and discrimination against Ebola survivors. Worse, today, co-residence of elderly people with kin has apparently declined and this too may have increased the adverse impact of parental absence for parentless children and youth.
What are the implications of these changes for the Liberian post-war society? The first place to start is to suggest that the conditions of extreme poverty, high female participation in the labor force, howbeit small, compared to their male counterparts, inadequate employment opportunities for some males, largely young adults, and narrow wage differentials between men and women are factors that have encouraged marital instability within the Liberian society in addition to the effects of the civil conflict. True, we cannot test these claims causally because fine-tune economic data is not readily available to measure the effects of economic factors on the family system. But from social science observation, one can conclude that single parenthood and parental absence are associated with endemic poverty and its social consequences. Put another way, single parenthood and parental absence also cause or deepen the roots of poverty. If one were to add high levels of illiteracy and residence in the remote and rural parts of the country on the conditions of affected populations, the higher the odds would become.
At this juncture, it is worth asking some important questions. Have the ideological preferences of young men and women changed toward marriage, which may explain the appearance of increased single parenthood? Is the increase in the number of Liberian women entering higher education and the workforce also responsible for the undesirability of marriage at an early age? Are married Liberians staying together longer or is there an increase in the rate of divorce? Is there a downward spiral in the Liberian family unit retaining the important parental functions of caring for, socializing, and nurturing dependent children? As adverse events occur in the lives of kin, what is the nature of the extended family in reinforcing and maintaining the connective and strong supportive linkages among family members that were once the norm? What is the role of the government (public policy) and civil society (practical interventions) in addressing these questions? If all the challenges facing the nation converge in one place, it is within the family system. The inability of Liberian society as a whole (government, civil society, individuals, and the collective unit) to understand the multiple pathways and risk factors that have caused erosion and even dysfunction of the Liberian family system would only harden the uncompetitive nature of the society. Unfortunately, the rising economic hardships, the quite caustic social norms, and the absence of proactive national interventions have made the environment less hospitable to building strong and stable families.
The results of this analysis hopefully, assists in removing some of the ambiguities regarding the direction family policy in Liberia should take now and in the future. No society achieves its social development aspirations, if the systems and structures for successfully raising the next generation of leaders are persistently and severely distressed. It is true that teen pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, rape, reduced parental responsibility for child support, child abuse/neglect, and number of children being reared by parents that are stuck in poverty have not abated significantly in this era. Only when sustainable efforts are mounted with targeted pro-poor socioeconomic interventions would the Liberian family system and structure break from its entrapment in these vicious pathologies. For this to happen, society must forge social policies that holistically and in an integrated way address the nexus of the following through a family-centered approach:
Hopefully, professionals working in the social work, mental health, youth development, healthcare, and justice sectors can together adapt evidence-based practice by applying Liberian-specific intervention strategies and community supports that validate the grief and loss associated with historical traumas, which Liberian families have suffered from past shattering events. If anything, the state should build an integrated strategy for rebuilding and strengthening the communal family. Of note, there is no naïve assumption that the government is the “messiah” to solve all the Liberian family system challenges. It will take collective efforts at all levels of society: government, civil society, faith-based organizations, community-based organizations and more.