Guest post: "Women could be the key to Sierra Leone's future"
Charlotte McFarlan looks at how Christian Aid’s projects are empowering the women of Sierra Leone to improve their country
Christian Aid supporter
Posted on: Wed 20-Apr-16 16:55:09
(2 comments )
"Please go home and tell your friends: something involving your sisters is happening in Sierra Leone."
This is the message I was tasked with delivering on return from my visit to West Africa.
In Sierra Leone, 60% of the population live below the poverty line. It was ravaged by an 11-year civil war, and hit hard by the Ebola epidemic. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
It is also very much a patriarchal society, dominated by traditional leaders, or chiefs. Women have little political power; domestic abuse and sexual violence are widespread.
But women could be the key to the country's future: when women are part of policy and decision making, they fight to put issues such as health, education and clean water on the government's agenda.
One might think that the 2014 Ebola outbreak would have changed the priorities of charities working in the country. Women were disproportionately affected by Ebola both directly and indirectly. As caregivers, women were more likely to contract the disease; 60% of those who died were female. With schools closed and curfews in place, violence against women and girls also increased. As the country emerges from the shadow of the epidemic, redressing the balance of power is even more important.
The attitudes of men are starting to shift. It would be wrong to underestimate the struggles, or romanticise the situation, but when I asked the women councillors if their husbands supported them, I was greeted with more nods, smiles, and proud yeses than other reactions. We met with four chiefs, who were all willing to talk about how they might get involved in making things better for women.
However, empowering women economically, socially and politically is incredibly challenging. I spoke to members of the Kailahun Women in Governance Network, who have been supported by Christian Aid and local partners Social Enterprise Foundation Sierra Leone (SEND) and Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD). The work of these organisations has helped two women become MPs, 12 women become elected councillors, and has brought them together to form this Network. They were clear about the difference this project has made to their lives; in a year they have become confident, outspoken. But although training and confidence-building is invaluable, there are serious financial barriers to many women getting involved in politics. Even in relatively well-off families, women do not have money of their own to pay candidate fees or to travel to all the regions they represent, stifling their ability to achieve change for their communities. For the women in the Network who have been given the resources to overcome these obstacles, the next step is to ensure their new skills benefit as many of the people they represent as possible.
One of the women we met had received media training from BBC Media Action and now hosts a weekly radio show called 'Women on the Move'. Most people in Sierra Leone have access to radio, so this is a fantastic way for open discussion about topics such as gender-based violence to reach the many, not just the few.
Economic empowerment is also crucial; money gives women independence and status both at home and in the community. We spoke to women who had taken out small, affordable loans from SEND. With these, they had set up their own businesses, trading soap, spices, and fish; weaving beautiful cloths. They told us that their husbands respected them more now that they were able to bring more money into the home, and they were able to afford things for the family such as school books for their daughters.
The attitudes of men are starting to shift. It would be wrong to underestimate the struggles, or romanticise the situation, but when I asked the women councillors if their husbands supported them, I was greeted with more nods, smiles, and proud yeses than other reactions. When my aunt - who was heavily involved with Christian Aid's work - visited the country in 2007, she wrote in her notes that the idea of reforming the country's chiefdom system was "not even to be discussed". We met with four chiefs, who were all willing to talk about how they might get involved in making things better for women.
As we looked at a 'Gender Roles in the Home' poster, and jokingly asked if we could take a copy home to show the men in our family, perhaps the most striking thing was that although their struggles are far removed from ours, we still have a great deal in common.
Charlotte is taking part in Circle the City for Christian Aid; you can sponsor her here.
By Charlotte McFarlan
It's a salutary reminder of how much we take for granted in the west to read a post like this.
"They told us that their husbands respected them more now that they were able to bring more money into the home"
It seems to be sadly universal that respect equates to participation in the market economy when presumably the women of Sierra Leone have been performing priceless unpaid labour since forever. But wonderful that these projects are having a positive effect on women's lives.