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
These practical services backed up by advocacy programmes to push awareness and create judicial infrastructure are where Irish Aid is making a difference.
The tolerance of gender-based violence in Sierra Leone has historically been high for cultural reasons, but efforts to shift attitudes started in earnest in 2007 when domestic violence was made a crime as part of three gender-related acts of parliament passed that year.
If reporting sexual violence is the first link in the justice chain, then the traffic through the Rainbo centres is a measure of success. But just creating a structure for reporting violence isn’t enough.
If the police, courts and civil service are not all working together all efforts are “handicapped” from the off, says Walsh. This is one of the reasons why part of the €11 million-plus Irish Aid provided in 2012 involves the launch of Saturday courts around the country to deal exclusively with women.
“We started funding this last November because we were seeing a situation where the Rainbo centres were providing access to courts but, if the courts were not functioning well, we were leaving these women at a loss,” says Walsh.
Malnutrition in mothers and babies is also an issue borne out of gender inequality. Between 2005 and 2012, Ireland provided €75 million to the country, primarily on health projects tackling nutrition, and reproductive and child health. One programme deals with malnutrition caused by teenage pregnancy. Almost 50 per cent of girls have given birth by 18, or are pregnant and with little or no means to feed themselves.
Tackling maternal malnutrition automatically gives children a better chance.
“By the age of two, they have already lost so much of their physical and mental potential if they suffer malnutrition. It’s not just stunted growth, it’s mental growth. That’s why the focus is on the first 1,000 days.”
The riskiest thing a woman can do in Sierra Leone is to get pregnant – there is one in 21 chance of death in childbirth, says Yilla. His E4A programme, led by British firm Options, aims to strengthen the health system by getting people to help themselves and demand more of their politicians. I
n a country where there is a paucity of data, gathering evidence is crucial to the progress of services and infrastructures. One initiative involved scoring the midwifery clinics and sharing the information with voters before the election.
“It’s a very basic checklist, electricity, running water and blood supply.These are things that are enablers to save women’s lives,” says Yilla.
“People could see for example that a region in the south of the country is the least populated but the most well-funded of the lot. They started to ask questions and demand more of politicians,” he says.
“The real power lies in the ability in invoking the response in people to demand more from their health service. Often there is a feeling if someone dies it’s God’s will – there is a cultural fatalism.”