Women and their Struggle in Sierra Leone

In the first part of this post we outlined the societal rationale that posits Sierra Leonean women lower than the men. This belief is the product of a lack of access to education, for both men and women, but also of the lower expectations of women held by both sexes. While it is difficult to identify what is a cause and what is a consequence of the gender-based discrimination, rape, objectification, family honour, and Female Genital mutilation (FGM) are all ways in which women are physically and psychologically damaged by their lower position in society. As we completed our previous post by saying, we are actively working at eradicating this perception of women as second-class citizens, and have been successfully empowering girls with the belief and tools to combat the discrimination that they are subjected to.

Nothing proves the belief of the international community in the capability of African women more than the revolution in Microfinance projects that has erupted in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 15 years. These Microfinance loans range between $50-1000 USD, and are used for financing small business or individuals. The lack of access to traditional banks, and a lack of infrastructure in the credit industries are creating space for profit-yielding and not-for-profit lenders to invest in human and market potential on a shallow but broad scale. It has been a common theme globally that women have been far more successful in forming groups, applying for loans, and administering the funds in the manner agreed with the lenders. So much so that, worldwide, 68% of Microfinance loans go to women. Due to this trend, it has become a secondary index of these lenders to track gender mobilisation and increased independence of these female-dominated groups. In a report on the Sierra Leonean Microfinance market by SPANDA, entitled Breaking the Cycle of Political and Economic Marginalisation, the author wrote the following:

“As women become micro-entrepreneurs, their household activity is replaced by commercial activity. Ideally, the iron grip of traditional culture on women’s lives is substituted by the freedom of market relations.”[1]

Microfinancing does come with it’s drawbacks, and it’s certainly not clear what all of the impacts are from this societal disruption[2], but the relative security that lenders find in the groups illustrates that Sierra Leonean women are capable of identifying market needs, engaging in organised business, and to run successful cooperatives without the oversight or assistance of their husbands. It also confirms that entrepreneurialism and economic success leads to a greater social independence through means of civic, economic, and social empowerment. Although this report relates directly to micro-finance projects, we draw comparisons between this empowerment to what we do in education.

At EducAid we provide our students with the best tools possible to succeed in Sierra Leone. We try to give our students a rounded education, focusing not only on the three Rs, but also centring their learning around a practical application as well. Concordantly, we have always taught with an emphasis on gender equality. By implementing a number of programmes, we have been able to find the platform and environment to allow girls and women to push themselves to succeed.

Girl Power Group

In this group we focus our girls on knowing their rights and responsibilities. This is both from a social and personal standpoint, and what they should expect from relationships and family.

Women’s Project

In this project we help secondary aged girls who have had their primary education neglected. We help them into mainstream classes through accelerated learning programmes coupled with self-esteem work.

Girls’ Safe House

In the safe house we try to teach the girls that they are strong, beautiful, and capable of anything. We teach our girls that the sky is the limit; here our girls are safe not only from physical abuse and overwork, but also of the emotional and social abuse of being treated as inferior. We teach our girls to believe in themselves, and to treat each other with respect and love.

As we provide a platform for our female students to thrive, it is also important for us to manage the expectations of our male students. If we simply empowered girls without helping our boys to understand the importance and relevance of it, we may only be feeding the fire of conflict. It can be difficult; many of our students will experience polygamy, FGM, and generally lower treatment for women in their everyday life. They may even be expected to participate in this treatment of women, so it is key to the success of our programmes that we give them a platform of understanding for the importance of equality. Equality is something that needs to be reciprocated in order to become effective. This element of our equality programme does come with it’s difficulties because much of the guidance comes directly from our staff who themselves have been brought up in a world of gender-based discrimination. We find that small but symbolic things help all of the students. For example, we make sure that both sexes go in to the kitchen and learn to cook; both sexes collect firewood; the head boy and head girl are equal; and there are both female and male prefects. These symbols are more than just gestures, because in our schools these positions hold genuine responsibility.

Our programmes are taking hold. We are immensely proud of our alumni, and the way that they lead our current students’ thoughts on gender equality. We have a unique and special world at EducAid that, bar the rare indiscretion, is a microcosm of what Sierra Leone should be like all over the country. We show mutual respect and consideration for each other as humans, one that is not dependent on gender, religion, or ethnicity. We know that we still have a very long way to go. We receive some girls who have experienced terrible situations and arrive with some very damaged views on equality. It is only with a supportive, caring, and empowering environment that we can effect real change in these girls.

Our vision for the future is big, but it is certainly achievable in the longterm. We think that gender equality is absolutely necessary to bringing about the reform so desperately needed in this country because, as demonstrated by the Microfinance loans, women in Sierra Leone are often the prudent and sensible parties. We believe that by introducing equality in to Sierra Leonean society from the grassroots we will help to transform this nation in to one that can prosper. We hope that by being centrally involved in empowering women, and sending them in to the workplace and political sphere, our alumni will embody our values and spread them to the nation.

[1] http://www.spanda.org/Social&Political_L.pdf

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