Mercy Womeh attends the J Chauncey Goodridge school in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. She pays her school fees by crushing rocks, earning 35 Liberian dollars ($0.47) for each bucket. Three years ago, her family moved from the countryside to the Monrovia suburb of Gbawe Town to find work. But in a country with 85% unemployment, crushing rocks was the only option.
Womeh admires Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. 'She is educated and she promotes education for women and girls. We have to try to be like her because she has brought hope to the women of Liberia,' she says.
Womeh believes getting an education will transform her life. 'When you graduate from high school, you understand things that people who did not go to school cannot understand. The way you speak will be different and you will be able to make decisions that will benefit you and your family. If you are not educated, you are like a tea without sugar.'
Education is now free and compulsory in Liberia. But there are not enough teachers and classes are overcrowded. Womeh pays to go to a private school and says state school teachers often don't turn up for class. '[At state schools] there are charges like paying for pamphlets and tests so it is almost as if you are paying. If you don't have money, you have to drop out.'
When Womeh's family lived in a rural area, none of the children attended school. 'My parents did not have the money to send my brothers and I to school,' she says. 'My parents were farmers and I used to help them by driving the birds away from the rice and then beating the rice when it was harvested.'
Womeh is already thinking about how she will pay for college in years to come. She says: 'I’m doing this because I have no other work to sustain myself. When I get paid for the crushed rock, I pay my school fees. The rest I keep to buy food. Some day I would like to go to college, leave the rock crushing business and set up a more sustainable kind of business.'
The stones Womeh crushes are used in Liberia's construction industry, but little of any economic growth trickles down to people like her. Liberia is expected to enjoy 8.9% economic growth this year, according to the African Economic Outlook, and government revenue has grown by 400% since 2006. But World Bank figures reveal eight out of 10 Liberians still live on less than $1.25 a day.
Johnson Sirleaf's Nobel peace prize, awarded October 2011, underscores the gap between local and international perceptions of the president. Achievements of her first six years, such as securing $4.6bn in debt relief and improving Liberia's international image, mean little to people who can't feed their families.
However, Womeh remains upbeat about her future. 'President Sirleaf is doing her best. Some girls I know were not taking education seriously, but more are going to school now because of the new schools that are opening. One day I may not be able to pay for private school and will have to go to public school, but things are being done to make those schools better.'
Womeh does her homework by the light of a solar lamp. Liberia is a tough place for women but Womeh believes that education, and her government, will help her change her future. 'I pray there will be a time that I will look up and thank God we have a woman president and the government is helping me to get an education, so I will be able to stop cracking rocks.'
For Musu Cole, 55, who has been crushing rocks for five years, women’s empowerment is an empty phrase. Cole lost her husband in the war and supports her family alone. 'I’m just bursting this rock for my children to eat and for me to send them to school. This work is too hard, sometimes it makes you sick. All day you’re in the sun with no food. It is not easy.'
Women and girls play a central role in the Liberian economy. They make up 54% of the workforce, grow most of the country’s smallholder produce, provide 93% of food crop production, carry out more than 85% of trading activities and do the bulk of childcare. Yet they earn less than men and play only a minor role in key sectors, such as public works and infrastructure.