(July 2003) High rates of childhood illnesses and deaths in Liberia offer some of the clearest signs yet of the impact of Liberia’s prolonged war and political instability. Renewed fighting in a civil war that ran through much of the 1990s has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom remain in the country in makeshift shelters while others flee to Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, or Nigeria.

For this population of slightly more than 3 million, a 1996 peace agreement signaled an end to a nearly seven-year war and the hope that much of the country and its institutions would be rehabilitated. Recent fighting, coupled with United Nations sanctions, however, once again threatens the future of this largely young population (43 percent is under age 15). By the end of 2002, the conflict had displaced at least 380,000 people, the large majority of them outside of the country, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR). Early in July, the USCR estimated that the current crisis had uprooted an additional 300,000 people, with hundreds of others fleeing weekly to neighboring countries.

One of the greatest concerns is the health of children. High rates of infant and child mortality and morbidity make Liberia one of world’s 10 most underdeveloped countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In its 2003 World Population Data Sheet, the Population Reference Bureau places annual deaths of children before their first birthday at 141 for every 1,000 live births. Countries with higher rates include neighboring Sierra Leone (155 per 1,000 live births) and Afghanistan (154), both nations where civil conflict has also devastated public health services. Under-5 mortality in Liberia is around 235 for every 1,000 live births, according to United Nations estimates. For those who live, malnutrition presents another threat. The UN estimates that malnutrition affects 56 percent of children under age 5.

War and conflict also place reproductive health programs at risk. These programs are critical in a country with high fertility and huge risks associated with childbearing. The maternal mortality ratio — 1,000 deaths for every 100,000 live births — is one of the highest in the world. The country is also one of the region’s leaders in fertility, with the average number of children per woman close to seven. At current levels of fertility and mortality, one out of every 12 women in Liberia risks dying of complications of pregnancy or delivery, compared with one in 70 in South Africa, according to UN estimates. By contrast, in the developed world, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying from maternal causes is one in more than 4,000.

Women in Liberia also begin having children when they are young. More than 60 percent of the country’s women have their first birth before age 20, according to The World’s Youth 2000, a PRB publication. The Liberia Demographic and Health Survey conducted before the war showed a relationship between the number of children women had and how far they went in school. Women who had gone to secondary school or beyond averaged fewer than five children. However, education is another of the country’s major challenges, particularly in relation to women. The literacy rate for women 15 years and older is an estimated 38 percent, compared with 70 percent for men, according to PRB’s Women of Our World 2002.

Yvette Collymore is a senior editor at PRB.


Liberia Data
Population Mid-2003 3.3 million
Rate of Natural Increase (birth rate minus death rate, expressed as a percentage) 3.1
Population Change 2003-2050 (projected %) 165
Population 2025 (projected) 5.5 million
Population 2050 (projected) 8.8 million
Infant Mortality Rate (infant deaths per 1,000 live births) 141
Total Fertility Rate (average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime) 6.6
Population Under Age 15 (%) 43
Population Over Age 65 (%) 3
Life Expectancy at Birth, Both Sexes (years) 49
Life Expectancy at Birth, Males (years) 47
Life Expectancy at Birth, Females (years) 50
Urban Population (%) 45
Total Area (sq. miles) 43,000
Density (population/sq. mile) 77
Capital City Monrovia
Total Females, 2002 1.6 million
Women per 100 Men, 2002 99
Women ages 15-49, 2002 800,000
Women ages 15-49, 2020 (projected) 1.5 million
Maternal Deaths per 100,000 Live Births 1,000
Literacy Rate (ages 15+), 2000, Female (%) 38
Literacy Rate (ages 15+), 2000, Male (%) 70
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 1980, Female (%) 56
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 2000, Female (%) 56
Labor Force Participation (ages 15-64), 2000, Male (%) 83
Women as Percent of Parliament, Oct. 2001 11
Women as Percent Ministerial and Sub-Ministerial Officials, 1998 7
Population Ages 10-24, 2000 1.2 million
Population Ages 10-24, 2025 2.3 million
Population Ages 10-24 (% of total) 2000 38
Average Age at First Marriage, All Women 20
Percent TFR Attributed to Births by Ages 15-19 17
Population Ages 15-19, 2000 400,000
Illiterate Males Ages 15-19 (%) 39
Illiterate Females Ages 15-19 (%) 62
Currently Married Females, Ages 15-19 (%) 32
Single, Sexually Active Females, Ages 15-19 (%) 41
Females Giving Birth by Age 20 (%) 64
Births Attended by Trained Personnel, Single Females Ages 15-19 (%) 62
Contraceptive Use Among Single Females, Modern Method, Ages 15-19 (%) 12
Contraceptive Use Among Married Females, Any Method, Ages 15-19 (%) 2
Women Among Population 15-49 with HIV/AIDS (%) 57

Sources: Carl Haub, 2003 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: PRB, 2003); Justine Sass and Lori Ashford, Women of Our World 2002 (Washington, DC: PRB, 2002); PRB, The World’s Youth 2000 (Washington, DC: PRB, 2000).