Tara Suri is the Marie Claire and United Nations Population Fund winner of the fifth annual Americans for UNFPA Student Award for the Health and Dignity of Women. Tara is blogging directly from her weeklong visit to Sierra Leone.
Visiting the eastern part of Freetown today, I couldn't get the statement, "Women are always in crisis," said without embellishment by Juliana Konteh, Americans for UNFPA 2011 International Award Winner, out of my head. Women are always in crisis. The statement's simplicity turns something that we all know – that the world we live in is far from equal and just – into a strangely profound truth. How is it possible that we live in a world where more than 50% of the population, often ironically deemed a "minority," is in crisis?
As I mentioned briefly last week, this crisis has hit Sierra Leone particularly hard. Still recovering from a brutally violent civil war, the nation has faced and continues to face high rates of gender-based violence and discrimination. Maternal mortality and associated complications, like obstetric fistula, a debilitating childbirth injury that leaves women leaking urine and often results in being ostracized from their community, are significant problems. Such problems are compounded by a limited educational infrastructure and widespread poverty.
Juliana's organization, the Women in Crisis Movement, seeks to challenge these grim realities by holistically empowering the women of impoverished communities. I got to see the organization's work firsthand as I traveled through the eastern part of Freetown, and I was impressed by both the scope and the scale of her vision. The organization runs a vocational training center for victims of violence and at-risk women, a fully-equipped clinic, a safe home, counseling services, and a school for children whose mothers participate in the program. These programs provide women with a comprehensive suite of resources, empowering them on multiple levels.
As an additional dimension, Women in Crisis seeks to engage the entire community to transform attitudes towards women. For example, this afternoon we met with a local chief who has helped build community support and awareness. It was inspiring to see someone in a traditionally patriarchal post so dedicated to improving the lives of women.
Yet the highlight of my day (aside from trying groundnut soup – which was delicious!) came when we visited the vocational training center. The center offers training in tailoring, catering, and hairdressing, thereby helping women, some of whom were previously involved in prostitution, earn a living.
While there, I had the chance to talk to Hannah, a single mother who escaped to Sierra Leone five years ago because of violence in Liberia. With an unyielding smile on her face, Hannah told me how she had no idea how to support her family when she first arrived in Freetown. Her involvement in the Women in Crisis tailoring program has changed that. Now in her third year of the program, Hannah is confident with her new, marketable skill. Her next goal? To put her two children in school, hopefully Juliana's. People like Hannah show that with the help of initiatives like Juliana's we can begin to envision a day where women are no longer always in crisis.
Read all of Tara's blog posts:
En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future