First, the good news.
As Nick Kristoff opined in the New York Times recently, Sierra Leone is changing and for the better for women and girls. 'It was not long ago that Sierra Leone was “the most dangerous place in the world to give birth.” No longer true: Deaths in pregnancy and childbirth have plunged 74 percent since 2000.'
He goes on to note that, "(m)ore than 90 percent of pregnant women in Sierra Leone now get prenatal care, and the great majority are assisted during delivery by a trained midwife, nurse or doctor. After delivery, nurses put babies to the breast right away and counsel moms on exclusive breastfeeding practices, reducing infant mortality."
And, as Kristoff has been preaching for many years, everywhere things are getting better. There is less poverty, less needless death, less untreated sickness, less infant death and less starvation than at any point in recorded history. We should celebrate those wins and replicate the proven strategies to create positive and lasting change.
The reasons we don't amplify the 'wins' more is partly driven by media's obsession with crises- such as, the famine in Sudan, the war in Ukraine, the earthquakes in Afghanistan. The press doesn't tend to stick around for the improved health outcomes in a rural region due to a new women's health clinic or the economic effects of repairing fistulas so women can return to supporting their families and work.
Now, for the not so good news.
Contributed by Sonia Koroma and Chernon Barrie, SGUW Freetown staff members.
Sierra Leone is a country that has emerged from 11 years of civil war and the emergence of the Ebola virus in 2014. Now, due to covid-19 and the downturn of the global economy coupled with the Russia – Ukraine crisis, the country is experiencing high inflation and economic hardship that is significantly affecting all people and especially impacting the more economically vulnerable- such as women and girls.
In a New Humanitarian report https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/ published on 19th April
2023, it is revealed that for a growing number of women and girls, estimated currently at 26,000, commercial sex work is the only way to earn cash in these uncertain times. The economic fallout from the pandemic has been the country’s latest setback, which like many crises, has disproportionately impacted women – who are often tasked with caring for family members while working as street vendors, cleaners, or other jobs in the informal sector, which is largely unprotected by any government safety net. Inflation has also surged 12% compared to last year, a jump attributed to rising food and energy costs, supply chain interruptions, and the war in Ukraine. Hassan Fuad, director of the Youth and Child Advocacy Network (YACAN) in Sierra Leone, said the recent rising costs of essential items and transport have pushed girls as young as 12 into sex work.
As AdvocAid Sierra Leone documents in their powerful film 'Kolonko', the reasons girls fall into the sex trade are myriad but almost always include- homelessness, family rejection, violence and intimidation, need to support children, younger siblings, extreme poverty and no other options available.
The sex trade subjects them to sexual abuse and violence, theft, police sexual abuse and theft, incarceration, drugs, disease and early death. In the film they interview a mortician who says he buries ten girls every month from the street, sometimes 'they are literally thrown away in garbage bins.'
Without significant police reform and provision of a safety net for out-of-school girls- this will continue. Unless commercial sex workers are provided real alternatives- including financial supports, life skills training, counseling, access to health care and employment training- they will continue to have no choice but the turn to this extremely dangerous life.
At SGUW, we share the rising concern of AdvocAid, YACAN, SGAN and many others working to assist out-of-school girls and people in the commercial sex trade. And, while we always celebrate and amplify the 'wins' for women and girls (and all people), we recognize there are many who have fallen through the cracks of family and social support through no fault of their own. We will be focusing in this direction in the coming months and will keep you all updated.
I recommend viewing Kolonko, it is available at: https://youtu.be/0fqcNQvQadg