Stepping Toward a Brighter Future in Sierra Leone

Muadi Mukenge, GFW Program Director for Sub-Saharan Africa, traveled to Sierra Leone in West Africa for 9 days in June and shares this update on her experiences.

Muadi Mukenge with GFW advisor Susan Sesay

This past June, I took a whirlwind trip through this beautiful country recovering from a devastating 11-year war. The capital city of Freetown is built on rolling hills and borders the ocean. The landscape is quite beautiful with the bay encircling the city. Freetown’s population has exploded, so much so that foot traffic is shoulder-to-shoulder. Most of them represent the 40 percent of the population aged 15 years old and younger that relocated from rural communities during the war. Some of the key challenges facing Sierra Leone include a 65 percent illiteracy rate, and daily struggles to make ends meet.

The Global Fund for Women held a grantee convening in Freetown and another in a rural town three hours away where I was able to meet grantees and other interested women’s groups. We had very animated debates focused on the implications of new women’s rights legislation that address women’s property rights, civil rights in marriage, and penalties for rape.

I also attended the launch of the National Strategic Plan on the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, a gathering of over 600 people that included the President, ministers, civil society, the Chief Judge, and media. Several of our grantees were there, including the Mano River Women’s Peace Network, which is a four-country network that works to involve women in long-term peace-building process. Presenters challenged government and the society to take meaningful steps to make human security a reality for women and girls.

Since the peace accords were signed in 2002, gender violence has actually increased, especially in rural communities. Sierra Leone completed its Truth and Reconciliation process in 2004, and a key recommendation currently being implemented includes reparations for survivors of sexual violence during the war. Despite this progress, the women’s movement in Sierra Leone does not feel that women are living in peace given the continued attacks on the bodies of women and girls. 

According to a female elected official, “Justice is not just the silence of the gun, it is the presence of security for everybody.”

This National Strategic Plan on 1325 is regarded as a landmark policy that will end the impunity on gender violence. Policymakers have set clear indicators of success and granted a budget for implementation. It is among several other recent policies passed in Sierra Leone, including three on gender, children’s rights, and poverty reduction approaches that advance women’s rights and end gender violence. The demand for accountability has spread throughout Sierra Leone, and many women’s rights activists are hopeful that these new laws will punish perpetrators of abuse and the rape of young girls. They are demanding an end to cases that are silenced, dealt with hush money, or ignored by the courts.

These trips always bring to the surface for me profound emotions, deep reflections, and a renewed commitment to fight the abuses women endure.

Here are some highlights of current dynamics in Sierra Leone:

  1. On March 27, 2010 the President of Sierra Leone Ernest Bai Koroma issued an apology to all women for the sexual atrocities committed during the 11-year war. This apology was a recommendation by the TRC, although many never believed it would happen. This actual apology took most activists by surprise and it was very emotional for women to hear this apology.
  2. Women played a strategic role in the Sierra Leonean peace process. They went to meet rebels and forced them to peace talks when other efforts failed. Now that peace accords have been signed, disarmament achieved, and elections held, the focus is on national reconstruction. Women are being told to go back to their traditional roles, but women are saying no.
  3. The President has instituted free healthcare for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, a welcome measure that promotes health rights for women and infants.
  4. The Sierra Leonean women’s movement suffers from divisions, competition, personality conflicts, and a lack of coordination. This weakens their collective advocacy initiatives, making it that much more difficult to take on the country’s entrenched patriarchy to make meaningful changes in the lives of women and girls. GFW hopes to support our grantees by prioritizing NGO staff training and networking activities.

Makeni women welcome the Global Fund with a banner and celebrationA high of this trip was an incredible demonstration by women’s groups of the deep connection they have with the Global Fund for Women! Our advisor Susan Sesay and I went to the rural community of Makeni on June 6th where we met a GFW grantee, Women’s Center for Good Governance and Human Rights (WOCEGAR), led by Mary Conteh.

As we reached the outskirts of Makeni, we heard drums and saw Mary on the side of the road. She, along with dozens of women and drummers, were wearing black T-shirts with “GFW Thank you” written on them! It was a welcome parade for GFW! Mary has organized a parade through the city! We started marching/dancing/quick-stepping to the drumbeat while women chanted songs and clapped.

WOCEGAR received its first GFW grant in 2007. It champions the rights of rural women in one of the poorest regions of Sierra Leone where patriarchy is deep, women don’t speak in public, girls’ education isn’t valued, and polygamy is the norm. Most women are illiterate, violence against women does not raise eyebrows, and women’s civic participation is very low. WOCEGAR promotes women’s civic and political participation, runs literacy programs, and denounces gender-based violence.

Mary is a force to reckon with and doesn’t take “no” for an answer! She talked her way into coming to the UN Commission on the Status of Women meeting by taking GFW’s grant award letter to several donors and said, “Rural women should have the chance to attend these international meetings. We’ve already been funded by GFW, I need you to sponsor me to go to New York. We don’t want other women to speak for us. We can speak for ourselves.” She told me, “I’m not educated, but I know what rural women want and we have rights.”

We marched and danced in the high heat through downtown in a celebration of women’s potential! In the thick humidity, we were dripping sweat and tired, but because the mood was festive, just when you felt you couldn’t continue, the drums took a different beat and you couldn’t help dancing to the beat.

Finally we arrived at the office after almost 2 miles of marching! I was humbled by the women’s welcome and pleased to know that all that energy and gratitude is directed at the entire GFW staff for believing in the group and its ideals.


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