We are currently sitting in the café of the Sierra Leone International Airport with two Zimbabwean women. The first woman is health researcher, and the second woman Zambian runs an organization entitled AdvocAid that works with imprisoned women in Sierra Leone. I also noticed the table was bizarrely decorated with American flag placements. Our flight takes off in several hours and we are preparing ourselves to leave West Africa and return home.
The past two days have been spent running around Freetown conducting interviews with many organizations and government agencies, as my mom concludes the final interviews she needs for her book. On Wednesday, Oct. 13, we visited the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On Thursday, Oct. 14, we visited the Special Court of Sierra Leone, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Irish Aid, which is the development and foreign relations arm of the Irish government. And this morning, Friday, Oct. 15, we visited Fambul Tok (“Family Talk”), a grassroots organizations that is continuing the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRC) through traditional reconciliation ceremonies and cleansings on a small-community basis.
During the past few days, we covered a variety of topics and information, but several of the focuses were the Special Court, gender issues and women’s rights, and health care. The Special Court is a hybrid, international court that was set up at the end of the civil war to prosecute the persons most responsible for the war. After eight years and $150 million (this amount is disputed, many claim the amount is much higher) it has convicted only eight people, (one has died, one is on trial, and several are missing). Many people are critical of the court, saying that it has been excessively expensive and has diverted funds from many other important efforts (including the TRC). Some people also criticize the small scope of its prosecutions and the underrepresentation of Sierra Leonean justices. On the other hand, many people praise its efforts to hold some of the most responsible for the war accountable, and how it has helped to create a culture of justice and applied international law in Sierra Leone. The Court is currently in the process of trying Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and in the eyes of many (including the United States), he is known as the person most singularly responsible for the war. The mandate of the Court will expire in several years and it will be disbanded, its duties distributed among the country’s court system, and then its true legacy will be put to the test.
On the topic of gender and women’s rights, Sierra Leone is both an example of great progress and enduring traditional inequality. Publicly, the country has taken a stance of promoting women’s rights, with anti-domestic propaganda plastered on the billboards and along the walls of Freetown, and in the passage of the Gender Laws, which domesticated the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). These laws outlawed domestic violence, increased restraints on early marriage, and strengthened women’s property rights, especially those dealing with inheritance. However, despite their efforts, the number of rapes in Sierra Leone is extremely high. Many organizations including the IRC and Irish Aid are focusing their mission in Sierra Leone towards servicing these women, especially in their sponsorship of the “Rainbow Centers” which provides health care, counseling, and other support services to rape victims
The mentality of the country regarding the rights of women is also tragically traditional. Even with a progressive government,, a majority of women (urban equally as much as rural) are subject to the accordance of a man’s rights – as the husband has the right to react physically to his wife of things that displease him. However, the increasing number of women in the legal and political professions, and the huge push to educate the Sierra Leonean women and girls of our generation are beacons of hope towards gender equality amidst the suffering and injustice.
Health care was one of the more positive and hopeful themes that we heard about. Though a nation of extreme poverty (with severe malnutrition and, as a tropical nation, susceptible to many diseases) Sierra Leone has recently begun providing public health care to its citizens. While the free health clinics often do not have sufficient funding or medication, international aid is lending assistance, and this is definitely a step in the right direction. It leads one to wonder why the United States, a nation with much more plentiful resources, has yet to do the same.
Sierra Leone is an amazing place. Unlike many other African nations exiting terrible conflicts, the cause of the Sierra Leonean civil war was not of ethnic conflict or religious divides. (Nor was it, as American lore might have us believe, blood diamonds.) The causes of war were many, but chief among them was a corrupt government that fell apart. The ethnic unity and religious tolerance of Sierra Leone’s people is quite a thing to experience. The people of Sierra Leone are also weary of war, and ready to move on and heal; and, for these reasons, I have faith in their ability to achieve a lasting peace.
By Kyra Ellis-Moore