A blog by Dr. Wendy Kreider, a member of SI Whittier, California for 14 years and Chairperson for the SIA Dream It, Be It committee, which is active in her club.
“In late August 2017, I arrived at the Airport in Sierra Leone, Africa. I had arranged with Soroptimist International of Freetown, in the capital of Sierra Leone, to be hosted by them for the next four days. I wanted to learn about the projects that their club was working on. I had become interested in Sierra Leone after a talk by Dr. Nina Smart of SI Downey who presented on her Soroptimist club’s contribution towards girls’ education and women’s vocational training in Freetown, where all the girls were protected from the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). I also read her story of how she escaped FGM which was the reason why she had been working with local partners and Soroptimists to help educate and empower girls and women in Sierra Leone so they too can be protected from this practice. I had volunteered in Ghana and was making plans to go again to West Africa, so I decided to add four days in Sierra Leone.
I found that there are many socio-economic issues that need to be addressed in the West African nation, and FGM presents a huge challenge. The Soroptimists of SI Freetown shared some of the projects they sponsor which help support girls’ education. The first was a well that they had built for a special needs school in Freetown. Providing clean water is a difficult process for the local schools. Freed from having to invest time in carrying buckets of water from a community well, and protected from the many diseases that keep others away from attending classes, the girls at the school supported by SI Freetown are dedicating more time to their studies and live healthier lives.
As a first-time visitor to Sierra Leone, I appreciated the contribution of SI Freetown, and it became clear how difficult it is at the local level to work on a project directly addressing FGM. Despite alarming statistics, understanding the context of the practice helped explain how important the education of girls continues to be when aiming to reduce the rate of FGM. Rituals performed by the Bondo Secret Society for Women are embedded in the local culture and considered a very important part of Sierra Leonean history. The Museum of Freetown clearly depicts the influence of the Bondo Society and its political contribution. Monuments honoring its founder are common throughout Sierra Leone and I saw a few statues in Freetown. Projects aimed at reducing gender inequality through education as well as empowering the women who earn their living by performing FGM through vocational training, enabling them to replace their way of earning an income are two effective ways that sensitively address the issue of FGM. Now I understood more clearly how very important was the contribution made by SI Downey in helping girls and women get educated in Freetown.
The current data on FGM in Sierra Leone is that 89.6% of the entire female population aged 15-49 have undergone FGM. This statistic is encouraging as it is down from 91.3% of the female population in 2008. 80% of women who have FGM experience health problems such as excessive pain, severe bleeding, infections, and long-term urinary and reproductive health complications.
My time in Sierra Leone with the SI Freetown club was an amazing experience. I learned about the country, how different and yet the same all SI clubs are, and I developed some personal relationships with the Freetown members. I will never forget meeting the victims of the 2017 mudslide and being able to assist in providing provisions for them with the Freetown Soroptimist members. The importance of carrying on the Soroptimist mission and improving the conditions of women in Sierra Leone is paramount so that one day FGM can be stopped as women have more rights and power”.
Lead image: SI Freetown members and students at the Hosetta School for Special Needs, at the well built by SI Freetown for the school.