In current media reports, women in Africa are consistently presented as helpless and being helped with their problems. Over the years, countless non-profit organizations have been set up and continue to be set up daily all around the globe to “help African women” resolve the myriad of problems that plague them – from health issues to disparities in education. This has etched the image of women in Africa as helpless and unable to resolve their own problems without outsiders coming to their rescue. With this scenario of women’s condition of helplessness, it is difficult to conceive that women in Africa have social institutions that have given them agency to play vital roles in society.
Given the excess of social issues afflicting women in Africa today, including extreme poverty, poor health conditions and the prevalence of gender disparities at all levels of the social and political structures, and as more and more outsiders pour in to help resolve these problems, African women seem to have no agency or ability to collectively help themselves. This issue of African women’s seeming lack of agency and collective capacity today implores one particular question,
- How have African women resolved their own social issues before the advent of non-governmental agencies that are now on the scene to rescue them?
As a woman from Sierra Leone, West Africa, I am keenly aware of women’s capability to resolve socio-political issues through women’s social institutions such as Sande/Bondo. Throughout history, Sande/Bondo women’s society has been the collective medium through which women have played viable roles in society as well as demonstrated their capacity to resolve their own issues rather than wait for others to “save them,” as current media reports would have us believe.
Sixteen tribes have co-existed in Sierra Leone for probably centuries, the Mende, Temne, Loko, Limba, Kissi, Mandingo, Koranko, Soso, Fulla, Kono, Vai, Sherbro, Krio, Yalunka, Krim and Gola. The majority of these groups live in the rural regions. With the legacy of colonization, Sierra Leone has struggled over the post independence years to partake in the global development paradigm. Although Sierra Leone is endowed with a rich tropical climate, fertile soil, abundant marine life and precious natural resources, including diamonds, gold, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore and chromite, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The decade long rebel war in the 1990s made matters worst and recovery has been slow, especially given the chronic corruption and ineffective leadership.
In the face of all the socio-economic problems affecting the country and people of Sierra Leone, it is easy for social institutions such as Sande/Bondo, to fall prey to erosion by western imperialistic agenda. Over the years, rather than strengthen such institutions so that women could benefit from their good practices, there has been a steady campaign to pull us away from our traditional practices. In the case of Sande/Bondo, the western-led global campaign against female circumcision has been mounted, in my opinion, as a campaign to erode the very institutions that have empowered women in our society; thereby perpetuating our dependency on western messiahs to “save” us from our traditional and cultural practices. We continue to be presented to the world as primitive and retrogressive and many of our problems are blamed on these traditional and cultural practices.
The official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2015 is “Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture It!” In my view, African women should ponder this theme very seriously; we should take this year as a year of consciousness-raising for a look back at our social institutions that have historically “empowered women.”
Specifically, women of Sierra Leone must look back at our Sande/Bondo women’s society and uncover the good practice lessons that could be applied today to enhance women’s collective prospects for empowerment in Sierra Leone. Through these lessons, we could counter the discourse of helplessness and lamentation that currently pervades prevailing discourse on women of Sierra Leone and Africa. Doing so would also help us identify the empowering agency women already have that could be used in transforming our current sociopolitical situation into one that truly empowers and helps us achieve social justice in our society.
In the next few days leading up to International Women’s Day, March 8, 2015, we will put the spotlight on Sande/Bondo Women’s Society of Sierra Leone, highlighting the institutions various aspects and potential for empowering women.