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When Emily Stanger MPA/ID 2008 was working at a domestic violence shelter in her home state of Texas, between college and graduate school, she couldn’t have imagined the role she would soon play in the lives of women far from home. Just two years after graduation from the Kennedy School, Stanger today is playing a major role in reshaping the lives of women in Liberia, where a 14-year civil war, from 1989 to 2003, left the country in shambles.

Stanger’s connections to the small West African nation began the summer of 2007, between her first and second years in the MPA/ID program, when she served as an intern in Liberia’s Ministry of Gender. Inspired by her experience that summer, she focused her second-year policy analysis on the economic development of Liberian women. In Liberia, 80 percent of women from rural areas are illiterate, yet women make up most of the work force.

“They’re conducting the majority of economic activity and yet are extremely disadvantaged,” Stanger says.

She and Molly Kinder MPA/ID 2008 — a fellow intern in the program — wrote “Fulfilling President Sirleaf’s Mandate: Ensuring Women their ‘Proper Place’ in Liberia’s Economic Development.” The report earned them the Women and Public Policy Program's Jane Mansbridge Research Award for the best paper written in the area of gender and public policy and the opportunity to present the report to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf MC/MPA 1971, who in 2006 became Liberia’s — and Africa’s — first female president and in 2008 delivered the school’s graduation address.

Impressed by their work, President Johnson-Sirleaf invited Stanger to return to Liberia as a Scott Fellow and serve as special advisor to the minister of gender and development. In October 2009, Stanger was appointed program manager for the government of Liberia-UN Joint Program on Women’s Economic Empowerment  — an ambitious $8 million initiative to transform the economic status of Liberia’s women through programs in adult literacy, microfinance, business development, secondary school enrollment, and trade.

From her home base in the capital, Monrovia, Stanger works on designing the programs and bringing the various actors together. “In the past, these functions were managed by numerous agencies,” she says, “and the women were not getting the whole package of services.” She also travels throughout the country of 3.5 million people, overseeing implementation.

She describes Liberia as beautiful and undeveloped, with beaches, wooded hills, and miles of dense tropical forests. Forty percent of West Africa’s rain forests are in Liberia, where it rains continuously from early summer to early fall. The rest of the year is humid and sunny. “Growing up in Houston,” she says, “was good preparation for living here.”

Stanger is grateful for the opportunity she has been given. “To be honest, when I came, I didn’t think I’d be here for more than a year. Liberia is very much in a post-conflict stage where everything is being reconstructed and rebuilt. At the same time, if you stay on, you see changes. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Working with President Johnson-Sirleaf has been a wonderful experience, says Stanger, who is impressed with what the president has accomplished in four years. “There were 14 years of conflict — so many class tensions. She is trying to deliver to people who haven’t had opportunities.”

Working with the women of Liberia has also been enormously rewarding. Stanger recently assisted with the launch of an organic fair-trade T-shirt factory, an enterprise she helped design. “For me it was a touching experience to see how far they’d come,” she says. “The women make everything worth it.”

Emily Stanger's internship in Liberia was supported through the HKS Women and Public Policy Program's Cultural Bridge Fellowship, made possible by the Nancy Germeshausen Klavans Foundation.