Hailing from Sierra Leone, a looming relic of a nation that had been through the brunt of a decade civil war and an Ebola outbreak that claimed many lives, just makes me a resilient soul with passion to one day put smile on the faces of the vulnerable and most marginalized of societies.
As a child activist for Search for Common Grounds, advocating on behalf of children most affected by the war, I had the opportunity to meet with global leaders and renowned influencers to discuss issues concerning children. My most solemn moment on the job was visiting hard-to-reach areas and finding kids without clothes and protruded stomachs-sign of malnutrition. Prevalence of undernourishment accounts for about 43 per cent of under-5 children with a greater 60 per cent of Sierra Leoneans living below the national poverty line (according to UNDP Sierra Leone’s findings). This situation is not only alarming but calls for urgent development interventions. During my childhood, I’d always seen the world an unfair place; me having parents that are educated and can afford basic amenities while millions out there struggle to even have a trickle; this narrative I’ve challenged myself to ameliorate and redefine.
Noting that over 70 per cent of youth in my country are unemployed, youth development has been my new-found love; there are so many NGOs working for child welfare with only a handful for the youth. From this, I observe a gap that if not treated will throw all children development effort to the bin as children obviously do develop into youth. As an Information Systems graduate with a passion for storytelling through photography and vlogging and a knack for advocacy beyond all borders, I am in constant search for solutions to recurring problems especially around Gender-based violence in my society. Back in 2009, when the national college-entry examination results were published, I felt extremely disheartened as most youth who took the exams in my community had no college requirements and majority of the youth vowed never to retake the exams or even attend school again.
Starting on a very small scale, I initiated the Zenith Academy– a home remedial, free of charge to help youth (especially school dropouts) with basic key concepts and examination guidelines. At the Academy, I taught basic subjects, printed and made available school syllabus to every student; provided textbooks to top performers; started counselling services especially to the girls and formed a drama and football club which attracted more people to join the Academy. The movement transformed from one of academic-based to that of a social space where youths are educated, play games, and feel comfortable to share their problems and get advice on how it can be solved. What was more interesting was that most of the youth experienced similar problems; therefore solutions to most of the problems came from the youth themselves. This initiative not only helped students to pass their exams, but makes them realize that they have an obligation to be the change they want to see-both in the development of their homes and communities. With more girls socially and economically empowered to regain themselves, my work as founder of Zenith Academy and a passionate HeForShe advocate will continue to give vulnerable women and children the voice they demand for their safety.
Even though awareness around gender empowerment is slowly gaining grounds in Sierra Leone, there is still need to redefine certain stereotypes that society strikes to limit potentials, especially against women. For example, as a young boy I’ve grown up believing that issues around menstruation were a serious taboo for discussion, more so for men. Ironically, having men discuss such issues not only bashes shame but rethinks common societal myth. Few years ago I vividly remembered my sister drawing circles around certain dates in her calendar and keenly observing her when these dates draw near, she feels ashamed to go out of the house and also very mindful of the color clothes she puts on. Helping her to smash the perceived shame attributed to menstruation, I always tell her that such issues are health issues and not only women issues, and that there was nothing unclean about it as preached by most religious leaders. Menstruation is a natural body process that sheds the lining of the uterus and women have no control over it; so why must they be made to feel guilty and blamed for the process? Religious heads must help to make women feel comfortable in societies and guide them on how to stay safe during the process; not demoralizing their conscience to that of unhygienic rags. To develop my sister’s confidence in me, I sometimes opt to buy her sanitary pads even though the stares I get from even the shops where I buy them are degrading. Surprisingly, most of these vendors are men and the situation scolds me to wonder if these traders ever knew what business really was. One sad thing that is common in my society is that majority of girls and vulnerable women are so poor that they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads and in the event resort to using part of clothes to save their dignity and most times these materials are swarmed with bacteria. How I so dare working towards being a producer of low-cost sanitary and health materials for these marginalized groups!
I strongly believe that gone are the days that women were only limited to being caregivers; they should be seen more now as partners in development, challenged to make the society a better place. To empower women, I see the need for passionate men to take up the lead in influencing other men to change society’s stereotypical narratives and promote the idea that gender empowerment seeks to leverage both men and women and thus women should have equal rights as men to choose whatever they desire, not really that women and men are the same (biologically we know they differ). If the world should be a safer place for all, all parties (women, men and third genders) must be seen actively involved in what they enjoy doing, reading about discrimination and sexual-based violence only in history books.