Gboko Stewart, email@example.com
Bushrod Island-It’s a mild Wednesday afternoon in October 2022 in a slum community on Bushrod Island when Rukiatu Barry, beaming with smiles and no longer held by fear of the unknown, walks into the town hall to listen to awareness on COVID-19 vaccination being carried out by Sisters 4 Sisters.
Rukiatu, 26, (name changed to protect her identity), identifies as a bisexual woman. She sits in a pensive mood as the executive director of Sisters 4 Sisters explains the importance of getting inoculated against COVID, allaying her fears and that of several others in the room.
Over a year since the availability of the vaccines in the country by the government of Liberia through her partners USAID and the World Health Organization, the light-skinned petite woman says she has been hesitant about taking the jab due to the constant wave of misinformation by some members of her family and the apparent lack of information in the queer community.
“I was afraid to get vaccinated because my uncle told me my stomach will run until I die,” she says. “I was also afraid of going to the hospital.”
“Nobody was telling us in the lesbian community anything about the importance of the vaccine,” she adds, “and anything that you don’t know is older than you.”
She says until the awareness by the human rights organization, the possibilities of her getting vaccinated against the virus were nil.
Sisters 4 Sisters is a human rights organization that works with marginalized women.
Under a project funded by Outright International and ISDAO, the organization has been carrying out vaccine awareness, targeting 100 LBTQ women and Montserrado and Bong Counties.
Jane Doe (name changed), the executive director of Sisters4Sisters, says the organization observed that there has been a lot of misinformation and myths about the vaccine.
“LBGT people don’t get a lot of info in the country,” she said. “As a result, most people never felt safe getting vaccinated. LGBT HIV-people were also afraid.”
She furthered that there were so many different issues her organization noticed that were obstructing the flow of information to the queer community on the virus. “People did not know where to go to get any information at all.”
Realizing this, she added, her organization reached out to the Ministry of Health and NPHIL to help fill in the gap.
“We created a space for them in partnership with NPHIL (National Public Health Institute of Liberia) and MoH (Ministry of Health). She added that they targeted a small crowd due to safety concerns.
She said her organization leveraged its partners to gather participants, though there were some minor pushbacks.
“We were concerned about safety issues so we wanted the crowd to be small.” Though it hoped for a small number in attendance, a throng of people showed up when news spread like wildfire that food items were being distributed to those willing to take the vaccine.
For the organization, this was quite a challenge as it became a herculean task to dissuade people without raising dangerous suspicion that the outreach was specifically for select members of the queer community.
“At the end of the exercise, each participant is given a 25kg bag of rice, oil, milk, sanitizers, and bottles of chlora.”
Ruth Johnson (name changed to protect her identity), 34, is HIV positive. At high risk and being a queer woman, she says it was a tough decision to get inoculated before the outreach by Sister 4 Sisters.
“There was no information on the good and the bad sides of the vaccine.”
But she was edged on by her boss to get the jab as she had also gotten it–proof that it was safe.
LGBTQI+ persons in Liberia continued to record instances of assaults, harassment, and hate speech by community members, the US State Department has highlighted in its annual report on the country.
LGBTQI+ persons faced discrimination in accessing housing, health care, employment, and education, the report stated.
Since the rollout of the COVID vaccine by the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ministry has recorded 3,780,676 people who are fully vaccinated in Liberia.
There has been no targeted campaign or action from the government and her collaborating partners to bridge what is now being seen as a gap of misinformation that is preventing queer Liberians from getting vaccinated, according to the Director of Health Provision at the Ministry of Health and Risk Communications lead at the National Public Health Institute of Liberia, Chester Smith.
Smith, in a telephone interview with journalRAGE, attributes this to a “lack of response from partners.”
He said the Ministry tried engaging some members of the LGBT community but the efforts were futile.
“We tried approaching some community members in Buchanan but a lot of them were concerned about alienation and stigmatization, and the money the government provided was basically towards surge capacity.”
A US Embassy spokesperson could not confirm or deny Smith’s claims. However, in an email to journalRAGE, the Embassy stated the outreach by the US Mission was mainly focused on churches, communities, businesses, and markets.
“While our COVID-19 vaccination campaigns have reached diverse audiences, for instance with targeted outreach to facilities providing HIV services, we did not do a stand-alone LGBTIQ+-focused campaign.”
According to the US Mission, its efforts led to an increase in the number of people getting inoculated. However, the embassy stated that it still has “additional support to make sure that all people living with HIV are fully vaccinated and we have recommended to the Government of Liberia that they target the elderly and populations most at risk for COVID-19.”
Sexy Omotola (name changed to protect her identity), 31, a transwoman, is also one of the beneficiaries of the Sister for Sisters’ outreach.
Like Rukiatu Barry and Ruth Johnson, she said she had been tainted with fear about the vaccine.
“People said you will get sick, and it’s a chip meant to monitor you–I was really afraid of the way people talked about it,” she said. Attending the outreach, she added, has allayed her fears and put them to rest.
“I learned that it’s very important for all of us to get vaccinated.”
This article was funded in part through a grant from the US State Department. The funder has no say in the contents of this story.