Building gender equality into Sierra Leone’s potential
While poverty is rife in the West African country, Irish Aid is targeting rape and child mortality
Princess Squire and Annie Mafinda in the Irish-funded Rainbo centre in the main maternity hospital in Freetown.
Imagine starting a country from scratch. That’s what it feels like everyone is doing in Sierra Leone, a country now 10 years out of a civil war, but still struggling to restore infrastructure to pre-war levels.
It’s not a disaster zone and it’s not like countries such as Brazil or Nigeria with extremes of wealth and poverty, luxury living and slums. Almost everyone – eight out of 10 – in Sierra Leone is poor according to the UN development index.
That said, the country is bursting with energy and optimism. “Sierra Leone is not going backwards,” says Dr Mohamed Yilla, an obstetrician and country director for Evidence 4 Action, a programme funded by British aid aimed at reducing maternal and baby mortality.
“With the windfall taxes coming from the mines, the potential for improvement is enormous,” he says.
Although the country is wrought with development challenges, it has one of the brightest prospects in Africa with gross domestic product growth projected at an astonishing 17 per cent this year. This is thanks to the mining of diamonds and iron ore transported on 85-carriage-long trains to the Freetown port for delivery to China.
Malnutrition and violence
Ireland is also playing a part. This year, Sierra Leone has been elevated to a partner country for Irish Aid, with funding for malnutrition and gender inequality including sexual violence.
“We are enormously optimistic about the Irish Government and the potential in Sierra Leone. The Government is doing a lot, donor co-ordination is strong, including a close group of 4 EU donors. Everybody is working together to rebuild the country,” said the Irish charge d’affaires in Freetown, Sinead Walsh.
The impressive Irish operation is run by women and headed by Harvard-educated Walsh, her policy chief Dr Andrea Breslin and her deputy Paula Molloy. Walsh, who worked for Concern in Rwanda and the Afghan/Pakistan borders, says huge strides have been made since the civil war ended in 2003.
And with the economy booming, the important thing “is to focus in on the sometimes neglected issues such as gender equality and women’s rights so that nobody gets left behind in the country’s progress and everybody can contribute to building the future of Sierra Leone”.
One of the programmes funded by Irish Aid is a series of Rainbo sexual assault clinics. For Princess Squire, a counsellor, and her sister, midwife Annie Mafinda, the World Health Organisation’s report last month about the prevalence of gender-based violence came as no surprise. They run the Rainbo clinic in Freetown and last year dealt with about 1,000 cases, predominantly rape.
But the important point is that the numbers reporting assaults has more than doubled since the first Rainbo centre was opened in 2003, reflecting a growing awareness that violence against women is a punishable and treatable crime.
“For more and more women, there is a realisation that what a man can do, a woman can do, so they won’t accept what’s gone on before,” says Mafinda who with her sister runs the Rainbo centre in the main maternity hospital in Freetown.