“There is a culture of silence around gender inequality in Sierra Leone.” As a conflict resolution student, I only began to understand the significance of this statement several days after I arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s jam-packed, edgy capital.
For months I had studied Sierra Leonean women’s lack of access to healthcare, employment and political participation. Once on the ground I fully expected to see obvious examples of gender-based injustices. I envisioned women with sad eyes, empty hands, and seven small children each lying prostrate in the street while men in business suits stepped over them on the way to work. Upon arrival, I noticed no such blatant gender divide.From the window of our bus I saw women sauntering down the roads selling food and toiletries in baskets perched on their heads. Brightly dressed in starched, pastel linens, the women actually provided a relieving contrast to the steaming garbage piled around dusty, crumbling houses with corrugated tin roofs. I could almost forget about ‘gender inequality’ were it not for the explosion of billboards prolaiming:
“Women and Men have the Same Rights.”
“Blame the Rapist, not the Child!”
“Stop beating your wife. The police will send you to JAIL.”
“Anyone who takes a child below 18 years old for Female Genital Mutilation will be arrested.”
The capital seemed to know no privacy given the wide-open nature of the dwellings. I was truly beginning to wonder where these billboard horrors happened. It was only when we traveled to the provinces and met with Women’s Action for Human Dignity (WAHD), an organization devoted to rectifying women’s societal status, that the painful reality of the gender divide sunk into my soul.
The director of WAHD painted a bleak picture. Discrimination against women in Sierra Leone’s Northern provinces is a lifelong cycle of physical and emotional violence. It begins when a young girl is taken into the bush for initiation into womanhood, a ceremony often including mutilation of the clitoris. Throughout her life the girl will carry a heavier workload than her male counterparts. As our host put it, “Mothers and daughters are the only ones who work while the sons play and the fathers eat.”
A member of WAHD chuckled bitterly about premarital relationships, explaining, “A relationship between a man and a woman before marriage is sweet. In marriage they become enemies. At midnight you hear the women crying bitterly, but this is not reported, and in the morning, no one talks about it.” Marital rape comes with marriage, and marriage comes with being a woman. “Women are not respected if they are not married.” Paramount chiefs, the local village leaders, ignore women’s requests for divorce, and, since women have long been considered property, customary inheritance laws dictate, “Wives of husbands who die are married off to other members of his family.”
Perhaps I had not noticed women’s suffering because, despite sensitization campaigns, gender-based violence has been normalized and women suffer silently. As our host said, “Sierra Leonean women are to be seen, not heard.” Suffering is only audible when pain is too much to bare - in the bush where girls become women, in the dead of the night when women perform their wifely duty. This is to say nothing of the constant housekeeping, water fetching, and child bearing that take a disproportionate toll on women’s health. With no control over their domestic conditions, much less any voice in politics, gender-based violence is woven into the very fabric of society.
Were I born into such powerlessness, I might accept an inherently unequal status, particularly when the consequences from straying from my role would be severe stigmatization at best. Yet our host was not so fatalistic.
During the ten-year civil war, she explained, women experienced a sort of shift. Brutal rape, mutilation, and total disregard for humanity pushed women to their limits and they began denouncing violence. Many women took control over themselves and their families as their husbands left to fight. Collectively, they lobbied for peace and formed groups such as the one we were visiting. Now was the time, our host said, to articulate that power and weave it into society.
WAHD transforms gender relations by ushering women into society. First, our host said, since meeting basic needs is an urgent concern for most families, WAHD helps women acquire and tend a small plot of land within their property. Ownership and control of production, more than cleaning, carrying, or keeping house, are key elements of empowerment. Next on the agenda is educating citizens about recent national legislation banning customary inheritance laws and gender-based violence. To this end, WAHD forms single-sex focus groups of local men and women to brainstorm the fears, hopes, and benefits regarding women’s formal rights and their participation in society. After each group is questioned by a member of WAHD, the responses are shared between the groups, which then come together to find common ground and work toward increased gender equality.
Three months after my sojourn, I have many more questions about Sierra Leone’s gender inequality as well as the mechanisms in place to change it. How can Sierra Leonean women embrace ‘gender equality’ when powerlessness remains a norm despite ‘sensitization.’ What sacrifices will women make to continue to renounce their position in a patriarchal society and advocate for a different position or a different society altogether?
Christine Williams was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine's blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Christine Williams earned her bachelor's degree in Language Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 2007. In 2010 she received her Master's Degree in International Policy Studies with a focus in Conflict Resolution at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Her academic interests include conflict in African countries and women's role in the peacebuilding process.