The New Direction Is For Young Men

My issue with the previous political party, the APC,  often dubbed as ‘youth-friendly’ because of its political appointments, was the manner in which it only enhanced the political careers of young men. The SLPP's New Direction movement signals a very similar process. Like its predecessor, its recent political appointments very much center on the growth of young men. The rise of 'young men' in government is been conflated for a 'youth-friendly' rise in leadership. The truth however is, this government, like the previous government, is youth-friendly for young men. 

This isn’t just a political party issue, it is social and cultural, speaking to the very fabric of our society. A society very loyal to the centering, enhancing and progression of, middle-aged and young, men. This prioritization is what I like to refer to as  patriarchy unchecked. 

You cannot tell me that in a country where women make up a littler over 50% of the population, meaning  there are statistically more women and girls in country and in the diaspora, that our government is  unable to attract, position and nurture women in political leadership positions. I don’t buy the arguments that a) women don’t come forward b) there aren’t enough educated women c) women aren’t gunning for these positions d) women don’t want this. I don’t buy into the arguments because it is Sierra Leonean women and girls who are the bedrock of our country.  There does exist a plethora of Sierra Leonean women who are highly educated, highly skilled, highly innovative and highly progressive. Yet, we are continually failed. We still face significant barriers to political participation, economic opportunities and in country, we are still disproportionately under-educated with youth female illiteracy rate growing at 1.82%, meaning over 60% +, of our adolescent girls cannot read or write. However, in my six-years of working at community level in Sierra Leone and visiting every district in our country; I've spent time in over 100 hospitals, schools and chiefdom's, I know it is the women who uphold these communities. It is women and girls who bury their dying husbands, brothers and fathers, who find ways to survive when they are abandoned, who keep their families and communities moving - nurtured and alive. It is women, hundreds of women, who worked with a female politician to introduce the safe-abortion bill, a very mild bill by the way. Yet it was pushed forward into fraught politicized territory because we understood that thousands of women and girls in our country die from preventable causes. Yet, we knew that it is stigma and deeply held patriarchal laws and policies that hinder the saving of our lives. It was patriarchy and matriarchy that resulted in the failure of the bill, starting with the president at the time. He could have stood up for the women of Sierra Leone.

I digress. All of this is to say, although I am very happy for all the young men on their political appointments and may they go forth and rule etc confidently. The operative word being confidently. In our country, we allow our men to aspire, to build networks, to play nice with each other, to lead, to dream, to know they are worthy and most importantly the culture PROTECTS their well being. They are worshiped by their mothers, girlfriends, wives and everyone else, with minimal effort. Inflated egos without recognizing just how so very privileged they are to live and thrive in a landscape that nurtures and protects their well being, only because they are born male. That is patriarchy unchecked. 

These are not the same type of access afforded to young women. We are never given the chance to start on equal footing, and the playing field doesn’t want to level out either.  Even when we aspire to achieve moving the needle of progression, the landscape is harsh and does not protect us. It intentionally hurts us (physically, politically, emotionally). Let's keep that in mind when we make excuses for why more YOUNG WOMEN and women in general, aren’t occupying leadership positions across all sectors, especially in the political sphere. Sometimes it is because we aren’t being appointed or given the opportunity, most times however, it is because we know we won’t be protected either - our lives are at great risk. 

I write this today in solidarity with my Sierra Leonean sisters who I know are hurting too. My hope for us is, 

We begin to organize ourselves,

work collectively and collaboratively

to uplift each other into leadership positions across government and private sector.

That we create and sustain inclusive local, regional and global networks amongst ourselves, and only include men when it is necessary and advantageous to the sisterhood – and yes, we can still love up on male-allies that push for equity and equality. Earnestly. 

We need each other to WIN. The status quo must change. 

No one need tell our stories but ourselves. 

No one need create policies that impact our social economic and political empowerment but ourselves

No need to endure man-splaining on the principles and ‘well-meaning intentions’ on gender-equity, equality or gender-parity and representation across all industries. 

I am not home but I’ve been watching. I am for the most part disheartened at the lack of young-female leadership across every industry and sector, outside of women acting as cheerleaders to men who are taking up these positions. And maybe, depending on the day and time, keeping the doors open for us. 

We need each other to BOSS UP on levels beyond imagination. I only wish this goodness for us. The status quo much change. If not for us, but for the generations to come. 

In Love & Solidarity

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This Piece was shortlisted for the Haller Prize for Development Journalism


The Health Systems Strengthening Game

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Her name could be Halima, or Hanna or Salaymatu. She could be from urban or rural Freetown; perhaps from the main town in the provinces or from a remote village. She could be between the ages of 15 – 49. She may have no education, some education, or be very educated. Yet, as long as she plans to deliver in a health facility in Sierra Leone, she can also easily become a statistic: One out of 2400 women die every year in Sierra Leone due to pregnancy related causes. Unfortunately, in the midst of myriad health systems challenges such statistics can easily become a needle in a haystack. It is therefore paramount for Government and development partners to act with urgency in asserting systematic changes to save the lives of women.

I come from a country that was ranked in 2014 by WHO as having one of the worst maternal mortality ratios (MMR) in the world. Sierra Leone, prior to our recent Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak, was already struggling to strengthen its health systems to save the lives of more mothers and babies. The international development sector in Sierra Leone was demoralized by the WHO findings, and yet, remained relatively silent about them.  The scapegoat excuse was the yet unreleased government Demographic Health Survey (DHS) figures that outline maternal and newborn health figures, meaning we had to wait to see what government’s figures would say. The failure of development partners to vocalize their frustrations – or at the very least create public space for constructive dialogue to re-address the gaps and fault lines – while forging tangible outcomes for moving forward made us all complicit in sustaining weak accountability systems in Sierra Leone.

It is now September 2014 and Sierra Leone, a nation of about six million people, is grappling with the largest Ebola outbreak in West Africa to date. Since the first confirmed case in May, we are now 4 months in; we have only managed to implement two Ebola treatment centres in the entire country with two more treatment centres said to be functioning in the near future. The rate at which the epidemic continues to spread is insidiously disproportionate to the rate at which systems are put in place to contain the disease. The outbreak so far has effectively claimed the lives of more than 50 medical professionals, including senior doctors like Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Modupeh Cole and Dr. Buck. The epidemic has taken a great toll on the economy, with the World Bank estimating growth reduction from 11.3 % to 8%, precipitating complex strains on food security and quality of life.

The shift in priorities across all ministries towards boosting the capacity of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS) to contain the spread of the disease has in effect significantly lessened attention towards other prominent health issues like maternal and newborn health. The lack of a comprehensive emergency response plan that not only addresses tackling Ebola but also other health issues in an already heavily burdened health system, will cost lives. In 2013 when the MoHS conducted its innovative transparent seeking and solution focused Facility Improvement Team Assessments (FIT) findings, there were 8 functioning emergency obstetric and newborn care (EmONC) facilities nationwide. The July 2014 FIT assessments results reveal that Sierra Leone currently has zero functioning EmONC facilities available to provide life saving care – meaning the country has no safe clinics for quality service delivery for mothers and babies meaning more women will continue to become maternal death statistics.

We cannot talk about weak health systems in a vacuum; the conduit for sustainable development is a strengthened and transparent government which Sierra Leone lacks. For example, Sierra Leone has yet to reach its Abuja target of 15% spending on health. Even though the percentage spent on health has increased significantly today standing at 11.2%, there still remain challenges with getting prompt and accurate data on health spending, disbursement of funds to the health sector and budget allocation lines that specify spend on health issues. To talk about Sierra Leone’s weakened health care system is to also talk about its weakened educational system. It is to address the country’s high rate of illiteracy coupled with majority of the populations’ lack of trust in the effectiveness of government social policies supported by development partners. We know this because even with effective Ebola sensitisation messaging, many continue to believe Ebola outbreak to be a conspiracy theory. These are all interrelated issues that play a pivotal role in not only containing a deadly disease like Ebola but also saving the lives of mothers and babies. Combating health issues requires both a strengthened health system and an empowered populace with health care seeking practices and trust in their leadership to effectively translate knowledge into practice and changes in behaviour.

It is therefore quite hypocritical for the dominant narrative on the table, by government and development partner’s alike, to now centre-around health systems strengthening when seven months ago (prior to Ebola outbreak) we were snail pace about enacting systematic change to a weak health care system. My real concern is what the results will show when we tally lives lost to Ebola as compared to lives lost due to the lack of provision of quality health care services. What will moving forward for Sierra Leone look like for the Government, development partners, the international community and for regular Sierra Leoneans? How will our statistics or the death of Halima, Hanna or Salaymatu and many others influence Government actions in the future, if at all they do? What if we had acted a little faster, held one another accountable to the people of Sierra Leone without fear of backlash just a little earlier and a little quicker? Would we be in the lion’s den negotiating between life and death? Sierra Leone deserves better, as does its people and especially its women and newborns.