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.
Over the past few days, we have encountered several horror stories: an eight-year old raped by two men on the side of a road, a thirteen-year-old sexually abused and impregnated by her uncle, a thirty-year old woman forced to undergo genital mutilation.
I haven't been able to bring myself to write about these women and girls until now, because I have had such difficulty processing their stories. How are such atrocities possible? How can lives be so painfully blighted in this way? Why, why, why?
These stories are examples of the global, widespread challenge that is gender-based violence, a problem that has particularly impacted the women of Sierra Leone in the aftermath of its civil war. Betty, National Program Officer of Gender at UNFPA's Sierra Leone Office, explained that every woman feels the strain of gender-based violence, because it manifests itself in so many ways - from the cruel, physical violations we were told of, to the limited representation of women in Parliament. On a day-to-day level in Freetown, women cannot walk and travel freely for fear of harassment; even Betty told me that when she does go out, she wears layer of spandex underneath her skirt as a sort of "protection."
Even Angeline, my travel companion and Americans for UNFPA representative and I indirectly felt the threat of such violence towards women. During our time here, we were repeatedly advised that we should limit our time after business hours outside of our apartment, a complex surrounded by 12-foot walls and barbed wire.
"Everything relates back to gender-based violence," Betty had told us, and it appears her statement is horribly true.
But there are also those who challenge this horrible truth, those that work to change attitudes and behaviors and promote the dignity, instead of the degradation, of women. Of such people, Juliana Konteh, Executive Director of the Women in Crisis Movement and Americans for UNFPA International Award Winner, stands out.
I've mentioned and visited Juliana's program sites throughout the past week, but I continue to find myself amazed by the passion and skill with which "Mama Julie" works. Among other programs (including a school for the children of at-risk women and a vocational training center), her organization, the Women in Crisis Movement, runs a safe home that seeks to provide sexually abused and battered women, with stories like those I have mentioned, with comprehensive care and rehabilitation. This includes shelter, mental-health counseling, healthcare in the in-house clinic and lab, and vocational training opportunities. In communities of affected women, Women in Crisis has sought to build ties with local leaders and chiefs to change attitudes and focus on respect.
"We are rebuilding broken lives," Mama Julie told us, simply, of her effort. What is even more impressive is that she has been doing so for years, having started her work with just a few women under a threadbare tent during the war. I've seen how her presence literally inspires; numerous counselors and teachers work for her organization without a salary, and she has rallied her church community behind her effort. Today, we met some of the widows that Women in Crisis works with and each woman told us of the empowering effect of the organization on her own life.
Mama Julie is at the epicenter of a dynamic movement for change, and as my time in Sierra Leone winds down, it is that spirit I will take home with me. She reminds me that everyone has a role to play in mitigating gender-based violence, and she reinvigorates my own commitment to do so.
Read all of Tara's blog posts:
En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future