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.
Today – after an epic 19 hours of planes, a jaunt on a bus, a trip on a plaid-seated ferry, and a bumpy car ride – we finally hit the ground running.
For these next few days, we're in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Nestled in the hills and overlooking the ocean, the city is unabashedly paradoxical. Neon flowers illuminate dusty roads. Bright dresses stand out against crumbling homes. Imperialism (streets are named 'Wilberforce' and hospitals 'Connaught'), nationalism (proud signs celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation's independence), and globalization (I saw a man strutting along in Crocs) duke it out on the streets. Shiny cars cut through teems of impoverished people.
Yet while the poverty is unavoidable, today's experiences were less about devastation and more about possibility.
A few highlights from today's schedule: meeting with the staff of Sierra Leone's UNFPA Office in the morning; a lunchtime audience with First Lady Koroma; a long chat with Juliana Konteh, Executive Director of the Women in Crisis Movement and Americans for UNFPA's 2011 International Honoree.
Listed that way, these three meetings may seem disparate and unrelated, but it is quite the opposite. Indeed, my discussions today highlighted the complex and interdependent web of change-making efforts undertaken by UNFPA, the First Lady, and Juliana. To start, UNFPA funds a range of projects related to women's health, like Juliana's organization and also implements various programs, including a partnership with the First Lady combating maternal mortality and associated challenges. Around the globe, nearly 1,000 women die each day from maternal-health related causes that are entirely preventable; Sierra Leone has some of the worst rates in the world, yet actors like UNFPA and the First Lady are working to change that.
In turn, First Lady Koroma has not only supported and championed UNFPA, she has also helped facilitate the nation's adoption of free health care for pregnant women and children under five, which has benefited the women in Juliana's programs.
Completing the web, Juliana, in establishing the nation's first safe houses for victims of gender-based violence, has furthered UNFPA's mission to promote the health and dignity of women worldwide; additionally, through a vocational training program, her organization produces "baby packs" – filled with toiletries, napkins, baby oil, clothes, and other essentials - for the First Lady's maternal mortality initiative. I feel like I need to draw a diagram or something of all this! Today's experiences really showed me how social bonds can maximize change.
Yet the hope I feel after my first day is nonetheless bittersweet. It is clear that Sierra Leone still has a long way to go and that there needs to be even more focus on empowering women. This is the part of the puzzle where I think we in the Western world can fit in. We can learn more, raise awareness, and rally support. We can participate by harnessing the social bonds that bind us together – across cities, states, nations - to create social change.
Read all of Tara's blog posts:
En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future