Monthly Archives: January 2012

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Elitism: Barrier to women’s progress

The elites are the people who have more power or influence in society because they are more privileged to have material wealth, education or positions. They are usually acutely aware of this higher social standing and view those of lower … Continue reading

Fewer Girls in Classrooms

A major barrier to gender equality in Sierra Leone and one factor leading to the crumbling of the foundation for women’s progress is the gap in girls’ education.

First, let’s look at some important numbers:

52% of the population in Sierra Leone is female
37% of students enrolled in school are girls (primary and secondary)
19% of students at the University of Sierra Leone are women (‘03/04)
23% of women have attained education
23.2% of females are employed in non-agricultural work
13% of female representation in government

The disparities are glaring!

As we can see, the pattern of inequality starts from the very early stages of education and continues into women’s future; which limits their number in higher education and limits their number in non-agricultural employment and further reduces their number in higher-level government representation.

2012 is election year in Sierra Leone, and there has been a lot of talk about increasing the number of women in political representation to 30% from the current 13%; our question though is where will the 30% come from when only 23% of women have attained education? Without a critical mass of educated women to enlist from, is this just another political rhetoric to fool us into believing that women’s issues are being considered? In our view, yes!

Some of the factors leading to this phenomenon have been observed by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sierra Leone, which recently pointed to issues of high drop-out rates and low enrollment of girls in secondary schools due to pregnancy, early marriage and preference by families in using scarce financial resources toward educating boys.

The majority of girls in Sierra Leone live in abject poverty, making them vulnerable to sexual exploitation by older men and teachers for economic reasons. An older man, for instance, would volunteer to help pay a girl’s tuition, this seeming kindness would lead the girl to succumb to his sexual advances, which usually results in pregnancy that ends the girls schooling career. Girls are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation by male teachers, as UNICEF referenced “sexual abuse by teachers” as part of the challenges girls in Sierra Leone face in secondary school.

For girls in Sierra Leone, pregnancy is a definite end to their dream of attaining education; a girl who gets pregnant while in school is maligned and shamed, most of the time is forced to marry the man who impregnated her, especially if he is an older man and is willing to marry and support her. In cases where the father of her child is an adolescent boy who cannot support her, the girl just drops out of school to find a means of supporting herself and her child. For most girls, this begins a vicious cycle of dependency on men, which could result in abuse and exploitation by men who take advantage of her vulnerability.

Low enrollment and high dropout of girls from school leave a critical mass of girls out of the classroom, resulting in lack of education among the majority of women, who are then deprived of the opportunity to fully participate in political processes due to this lack of education.

This is one of the major barriers to progress for women as it creates a huge dividing line between educated and non-educated women. There is no sisterhood between these two groups.

We will address this issue in our next post.

Barriers to Gender Equality

In today’s era, development in its true sense, whether personal, social or national, cannot happen without education; education is the basic building block for all human progress. We therefore, cannot discuss gender equality in Sierra Leone, without discussing girls’ education because it is the very basic foundation for women to become full participants in the social and economic wellbeing of our society.

The benefits of education for girls are immeasurable, among which knowledge about their human rights and the inherent empowerment this knowledge creates in women’s ability to fight for those rights is of paramount importance. The gender inequality in the social structure of Sierra Leone stems from the breakdown at this very basic foundational level; the inequality in education between boys and girls for ages has created inequality for girls and women at all levels of society.

Who can fix this broken foundation? This is not for the faint of heart, so it is going to require enormous expertise and the only people who posses this expertise are the women of Sierra Leone; with the support of our brothers and others, but we must lead the way because we have what no body else has, the lived experience of being born and raised as girls and women in Sierra Leone, regardless of which side of the street you grew up.

Sadly though, the fixing of this foundation has not been taking place because of a great many dividing lines between the women of Sierra Leone, until these lines are blurred, the foundation continues to crumble.

In our next post, we will discuss these dividing lines.

Cultural Castration Gift-Wrapped in “ASSISTANCE”

Castration: “to render impotent or deprive of vitality especially by psychological means” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

In line with this simple definition, cultural castration then can apply to people of one culture using psychological and other means to reduce the culture of other people into an ineffective state, thus depriving them of the empowerment they derive from their culture.

The decade-long war left untold devastation on the people of Sierra Leone, it’s been 10 years since it ended; however, the people are still living in devastating economic conditions. This has lead to a myraid of “non-profit” organizations, mostly foreign organizations, that are supposedly providing services and financial assistance to this desperate population that is ready and willing to grab at anything that looks like “help.” While many are genuine and doing great work some are motivated solely on profit-making; using the plight of these people to solicit funds abroad and in the process, exploiting the most vulnerable.

Before we delve into this issue, we must make it abundantly clear that this post is not an argument for or against female circumcision, we are neither defending the practice nor condemning it. What this is about is the assault on our cultural practices by those who perceive their own culture as the superior culture over ours. No matter what side of the debate you are on, this should concern you because it goes beyond the elimination of female circumcision.

Ms. Michèle Moreau’s account of what she is doing in Sierra Leone, as she details it on her blog called “mutilation” is a perfect example. This fiercely ethnocentric European woman is on a mission to “civilize” the “savage” women of Sierra Leone by demoralizing their cultural practices, imposing her views and ways on them, most of all, enriching herself by raising funds in Europe in their names, exploiting their images and urging other Europeans to join her in this quest. In her own words,

To finance more and more this kind of ceremonies seems to me the most interesting way to change the habits because I think that the excision became more a habit than a tradition.

To accomplish her goal in this effort, she is using psychological means to coerce rural women into joining her cultural castration program, as she explains,

In every occasion I remind the Sowés (excissors) that when the law that will forbid the excision in Sierra Leone will pass, the women who follow my program will not lose their prestige but on the contrary those who continue to excise will lose their tradition, their status, their source of living and their freedom because they will be sent to prison.

As confirmed by another European woman Ms. Moreau convinced to travel to Sierra Leone with her,

It was March 2007 in Spain when I first met Michèle. We were both participating to a seminar and in this occasion Michèle told us about her experience in Africa and her project in Masanga: to create pre-elementary school for those children whose parents promise not to practise the FGM to their daughters. An alternative and concrete proposal instead of the mutilation of clitoris that is still practiced in many places.

She is very delighted about her victory to have invaded or penetrated the sacred space of the women’s society, which for centuries, has prided itself on being a “secret” society, the invasion of outsiders has always been prevented by society women; purporting to have invaded this sacred space is equivalent to declaring victory and renders these women to defeat by White culture. Ms. Moreau even urges her compatriots to join her in her assault,

We always look for volunteers to come on the ground and why not, for the ladies, to take part, like me, in the “Secret Bondos Society”. It is a formidable, intense experience, full of emotion putting you in front of the feminine strength.

“Putting you in front of the feminine strength” there you have it, the “superior” European culture is affirmed.

She is also using economic means to force economically deprived rural women into joining her cultural castration program; she explains it as  her “rule,”

We had heard rumours that one of them from the village of Mathora had been mutilated after being accepted in the programme. One day we dropped in her school and…I am still shivering thinking back to that moment …it took just a glance to realize that we had lost her! According to the rules of the programme I was obliged to reject all the girls of that village from the school.

The carrot here  is enrollment of their daughters in her school; reminiscence of the Colonial era when the colonizers built schools in Africa only for the children of those who converted to Christianity; this paternalistic policy created the great divide amongst Africans that has become the source of many social problems. The same dividing line with the same tool, schools, is being used and  she is in the right place at the right time as people in rural areas, too poor to send their children to school, would do practically anything to have that opportunity. A great cause indeed but very demoralizing and divisive as these children will grow up focused on their differences rather than their shared heritage, the little they have left to hold on to is being robbed.

The repercussions will go very deeply, these girls are being violated with mandatory virginal inspection to verify that they have not already been circumcised before they are admitted, this task is assigned and strictly enforced by her agents, as she explains,

…As godmother of our program she feels even more respected than when she was a sowe, the woman who pratice FGM, female genital mutilation. She checks all the little girls regularly and verifies that the rules of our program are respected.

Imagine being a 10 year old girl, you are stripped naked, your legs are parted and a bunch of adults examine your private part; then you are told because you have been circumcised, you are banned from school, made to feel inferior. This stigma will last your whole lifetime. These children who are being violated with this process of virginal inspection, then told they are inferior because they have undergone circumcision, not allowed to attend the school; these children are being separated in such a dramatic way from the other children that down the road, their sisterhood will cease to exist – the good ole “divide and conquer.”

Her web site is packed with images of the children and women, she even takes a professional photographer along with her. Can any foreigner just go to the inner city of any western country and take photographs of 250 children and go off to where they come from without any accountability as to what is being done with those images? NO. These children may one day see these photos on the Internet and wish they had not participated. Her photographer explains his involvement in the project,

At the request of the NGO(NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION) MASANGA EDUCATION ASSISTANCE, I spent two weeks in Masanga, Sierra Leone, at the beginning of September starting period of the school year,  to make a report photos on the 250 children that MEA Organisation takes care for all their educational expenses.

What else could she be using these photos f0r? There is no evidence that anyone is asking her any questions. In the western world, including Switzerland where  we believe she is from, you do not take photos of children and especially not publicize them without the written consent of their parents, but these children are photographed freely, even without clothes in some photos and  these images are put on the Internet and God knows where else they will end up. I am sure Ms. Moreau is working on a “best seller book” as we speak, for which these photos will be priceless.

All of these beg questions such as:

If the government of Sierra Leone has banned female circumcision, why do we need outsiders to introduce their own version of how we should practice our culture? Are Sierra Leonean women not capable of creating their own alternative? Especially since these outsiders, who feel so superior, have to be so inconvenienced to go to a place they do not understand the language (they speak French which is not spoken in this former British colony) and culture that they look so low upon, even our food is described as “boring” by them,

The volunteers eat as the pupils: rice and rice, sauce with dried fish and manioc sheets. Practically no varieties. It is boring for our Western palatesThen we group children and parents to take photos: it is necessary to take notes not to confuse the name because many of them have identical names. To make them smile, someone improvise a mime and it works almost always.

You would think she is talking about chimpanzees.

Is poverty a good reason for such an open access to our vulnerable children who could be exposed to exploitation by these adventurers? Is there no social protection for rural girls and women, as vulnerable groups in Sierra Leone? What does the Child Rights Act 2007 of Sierra Leone do for children like these?

Ms. Moreau is acutely aware of their poverty, which she describes simply as,

These people possess almost nothing… Contrary to the daily life here we eat three times a day. In the morning the moms bring porridges or women of the village take advantage to sell small local preparations made by manioc, pea or white flour. At noon and in the evening we recruited cookers who prepared dishes in enormous pans: some rice with sauces with leaves of manioc, leaves of potatoes or gourds, concentrated tomato, hot pepper, onions and cubes of Maggi the whole decorated with small dried pieces of fish what gives a little bit the same taste to every dish.

But she is most certainly getting paid for her efforts; “I thank you infinitely for your donations and your participation to this program, Michèle” and she lists several bank accounts and methods of receiving donations.

She may not have created her web site with Sierra Leoneans in mind, but there are millions of us around the globe, she aught to know that some would take issue with her condescending attitude toward our culture.

Mama Salone has given her 2pence worth, please have your say too, leave a comment.