Tag Archives: gender equality

In the field, literally

Just like in most countries, Easter is followed by a four-day week here in Sierra Leone. That normally equates to less being achieved, especially after a lazy holiday weekend. Normally.

On Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., I headed for Bombali District with two journalists from Radio Democracy in Freetown – Mabel Kabba and Fatima Sesay. We were joined by one of JHR’s two Freetown-based trainers Martha Kargbo, and our driver Junior. Our mission: to gather material for three human rights stories in three days. Considering the infrastructure in Sierra Leone, this was ambitious.

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours

The fan belt snapped on our SUV, delaying us two hours.

The three stories were about allegations that an iron ore mine company has caused flooding on farmland; allegations that a biofuel company mislead landowners about its intentions; and the issue of gender inequality in rural Sierra Leone.

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining Iron Ore site in Marampa

Trucks carry soil at the London Mining iron ore site in Marampa.

Day one did not start very well. The fan belt snapped just before our first interview. We had to wait two hours for a mechanic to fix our SUV. The heat was intense. When we did get to the village of Manonkoh, the Chief told us he has decided not to talk to the media, because he was suspended by his Paramount Chief the last time he did so. We tried to find the Paramount Chief back in Lunsar, but he was out of town.

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh

The flooded fields near the village of Manonkoh.

So, onto the biofuel story. We visited the village of Warreh Yeama. Like in Manokoh, many villagers knew Fatima Sesay by name. This is her beat. These people did talk, and explained at length why* they feel mislead by Addax Bioenergy. Addax is leasing tens-of-thousands of hectares in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for biofuel.

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team

Village elders sit down to talk to the JHR team.

We headed for our base of Makeni and set-up interviews for the following day with a food rights activist and the biofuel company Addax.

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they removed from fertile swampland nearby

The Imam and two village elders in Worreh Yeama show the pegs they say that they removed from land near the village.

On Wednesday morning we spoke to the Programme Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Network on the Right to Food. It helped frame the questions* for our next stop at Addax in remote Mabilafu.

Construction is well underway at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu

Construction is well under way at the Addax biofuel processing plant in Mabilafu.

We spent another hour with the company’s Health, Safety, Social & Environment Manager, who gave his side of the story. He made his case for the company’s practices, but it did not tally fully* with what villagers had told us. There was a mismatch somewhere. A mismatch that makes for a story. Things were looking up.

Centre-Pivot irrigation on one of the fields leased by Addax to grow sugar cane

Centre Pivot Irrigation on one of the sites leased by Addax to grow sugar cane.

On Thursday we started work on the gender inequality story. Logistics meant we couldn’t head to rural Koinadugu District to the northeast. But what seemed like a curse, turned out to be a blessing. First we found a school in Makeni, where the Vice Principal told us of the high drop-out rates among girls. We then went to a nearby village and met a 16-year-old girl who dropped out when she got pregnant. She told us about her family’s strong reaction*.

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba, JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo

Minster for Gender Affairs Moijue Kai Kai, Radio Democracy reporter Mabel Kabba and JHR local trainer Martha Kargbo at Makeni City Hall.

As luck would have it there was a gender empowerment conference in Makeni that day. We got to interview the Minister for Gender Affairs and prominent female politicians about what can be done to improve equality for women and girls. All those hard-to-reach politicians, rounded-up in one place.

We returned to Warreh Yeama on our route back to Freetown. Villagers stood by their side of the story. Either someone was lying, or communication between the company and villagers was not what it could be. And that wasn’t all*.

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama

Children in the village of Worreh Yeama.

Finally we managed to track-down the Paramount Chief in charge of the area containing Manokoh and the London Mining Iron Ore mine. In the space of 20 minutes he said a number of things that raised more questions* for our visit to London Mining’s office back in Freetown.

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom

Paramount Chief Bai Koblo Queen II of Marampa Chiefdom.

We headed back to Freetown on Thursday evening with three stories in our back pockets and a lot of transcribing ahead of us.

*Listeners to Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown can find out more when these stories air over next week.

Breaking Down Barriers

Women are often seen as inferior to men in Malawi

It’s been known to cripple entire families, cut off economic productivity and destroy relationships.


In the past, the focus of NGOs in Malawi has been directed towards providing patient care to those affected by HIV, a necessary and dignified goal. But there’s one organization in Malawi that has expanded this focus to improve the socio-economic position of those who are not necessarily infected, but often bear the brunt of the epidemic: the wives and widows of AIDS sufferers.

The idea: to provide women with financial grants to start their own businesses and increase their standard of living.

What started as a small women’s support group, mostly widows, infected and affected with HIV, in Chirimba—a rural township outside Blantyre—Women for Fair Development (WOFAD) quickly took off. It has transformed into an organization focused on awareness campaigns, home-based care, group therapy, social counseling and female empowerment initiatives.

“We started going door to door to the widows and they were explaining more about what happened, how the man got sick and the symptoms,” says Matanya. The group surveyed the villages of Suya, Mdala, Mwachade and Chatha in Blantyre, discovering that 85 per cent of the widows were also HIV-positive.

At times it appears funerals outnumber weddings and baby showers here. Among survivors, the question of how to remain economically productive often looms large.

After talking to the widows, Matanya wondered to herself, “What next will these woman do—prostitute? They don’t do anything, they don’t do any business, they don’t have any way of getting income for their families.”

In a patriarchal society such as Malawi, women are often economically, socially and politically subservient to men. A woman’s role is to take care of the home, while a man’s role is outside the home. Wives are not only expected to be accountable to their husbands, they are financially and socially dependent too, typically due to a lack of education.

“Certain measures have to be put in place by women activists, like creating educational campaigns that show women how to be innovative and get out of poverty,” says Margaret Mvula, a Zimbabwean reporter working in Malawi. “They still live in a cocoon because of cultural restraints.”

With financial backing provided by the U.S. Embassy, WOFAD has been able to allot 20 women small grants to buy and sell timber as a business, says Jacob Mapemba, country director for World University Service of Canada (WUSC), which oversees the project. He says providing women access to income ultimately “reduces their dependency on men and increases their ability to make decisions.”

“We are the first women’s group in Malawi to do this type of business,” says Matanya proudly. The one-of-a-kind initiative, allows women combine their profits to acquire basic necessities such as food—which ultimately improves their health—shelter and clothing. The women also use the money to pay school fees for their children.

What really makes this program unique is that women initiated the project, manage it and determine the activities. According to Mapemba, other projects that focus on female empowerment often allow “men to take the lead in the decision making,” not women.

Previously, the females who participated in the timber project were living on approximately $5 CAD per day. They now bring home around $14 CAD daily—three times as much as a journalist makes in this country.

Even though women gain a newfound independence by participating in the project, discrimination against HIV-positive individuals still exists in Malawi. By promoting openness in declaring ones status and persuading others to go for testing, another WOFAD objective, the organization runs the risk of tearing apart relationships and alienating victims in a society where talking about the disease is taboo.

As the international community comes together this week to review the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in New York, all eyes are on developing nations such as Malawi to see if they achieve certain goals, namely decreasing the percentage of women in informal employment and improving the knowledge around HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. WOFAD is helping some women in Malawi inch closer to achieving those goals.

The timber project may be a sufficient way to combat poverty issues, but as Mapemba explains, “combating discrimination requires change in mindset, attitude and knowledge of those involved.”