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.
As the plane takes off the runway, Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" blasts on my iPod. Who run the world? Girls! Who run this motha? Girls!
It's a catchy anthem, yet as I reflect on this week, I can only wish it were true. The stories I have heard – of impoverishment, violence, illness, discrimination - coupled with the statistics about maternal mortality and gender-based violence, highlight the grim realities women face and eclipse the power of Beyoncé's crooning with a sad irony.
Luckily for Beyoncé, there's a silver lining. My time in Sierra Leone was not just about problems; even more powerfully, it was about solutions. In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, there are some serious game-changers out there who are trying to turn Beyoncé's lyrics into a reality.
We saw this firsthand this past week, as we met a range of innovative actors and collaborators and visited hospitals, vocational training centers, schools, and counseling facilities. Particularly memorable for me was meeting with 2011 Americans for UNFPA Award Winner, Juliana Konteh, AKA "Mama Julie." As the founder of the Women in Crisis Movement, the ever-smiling and ever-huggable Mama Julie strives to provide victims of sexual violence and hardship with empowering programming and education; to date, over one thousand women from the Freetown area have graduated from her programs! I've truly been astounded by the work of Mama Julie – along with that of other agencies, organizations, and individuals. So too, I have been amazed by UNFPA, which works closely to help other organizations and people like Mama Julie maximize impact. They've coordinated midwife training programs, provided vital equipment and medical supplies, organized billboard campaigns (I've seen billboards about maternal health all over the country!), and more. I cannot help but be overwhelmed by the relentless dedication to women that I have seen.
This dedication was reaffirmed today as we paid a visit to the US Embassy. There, during our meeting with Public Affairs Officer Mark Carr (whose sister, Jennifer, loves Marie Claire!), we talked about Juliana's work and also learned of the embassy's efforts to support and foster discussion around this issue. It was exciting to engage in this dialogue about creating change and to see the US government's commitment to ending gender-based violence.
As I head home now, I know that my own commitment to advancing the health and dignity has been reinvigorated. I can now envision a time where girls really do run the world, and I know I can contribute to an inspiring movement dedicated to making that happen. I can already think of a few easy things to make a difference – and they involve you!
1. I'm asking all of you readers to go online and sign a petition to help make sure that the United States continues to consistently fund UNFPA.
2. If you enjoyed my blog, take a moment to thank Marie Claire for allowing you to experience my journey in real time.
I'm so thankful for the opportunities I have had this week – to learn from and love the country of "Salone" – and I can only hope that the future will allow me to return and see even more progress and even more impact. So long, Salone!
Read all of Tara's blog posts:
En Route to Sierra Leone With Hope for the Future