All hands on deck in Sierra Leone: COVID-19 response needs female leaders, too
“COVID-19 is a dynamic and fluid situation,” says Lieutenant Matilda Mattu Moiwo. “You can’t predict everything that will occur in advance.”
Lt. Moiwo is a staff officer of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. Her military training serves her well in the fight against COVID-19.
As the National Emergency Medical Services Referral Coordinator in the capital city of Freetown, Lt. Moiwo has to juggle national ambulance services, clinicians at hospitals, treatment centres and isolation units, and psychosocial assistance for patients and their families. She also disseminates test results and updates a national database on COVID-19.
Lt. Moiwo remains level-headed despite the skyrocketing demands for her team since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the West African country in March 2020.
She remembers one particular COVID-19 case, where a pregnant woman at full term needed a caesarean section.
“For this woman, it was not just a matter of having a safe delivery. This was the very first delivery for a coronavirus patient in Sierra Leone. Health care workers at the isolation unit were worried. So was the patient.”
It took an hour or more of managing the elements needed for a safe delivery, but in the end, the hard work paid off and the woman delivered a baby girl.
Cases like these call for creative thinking, says Lt. Moiwo. “It is critical to get the right patients to the right places because we offer different treatment centres with different levels of care, depending on severity,” she says.
Building women’s leadership is part of government efforts to promote gender equality in all areas of life. Such moves include a new law on sexual offenses, the launch of one-stop centres on sexual and gender-based violence, and the government’s 2019 declaration of rape and sexual violence as a national emergency.
All these efforts are supported by the UN Country Team in Sierra Leone. And, says UN Resident Coordinator, Babatunde Ahonsi, supporting gender equality also means supporting the fight against COVID-19.
“COVID-19 is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” says Ahonsi.
“If women are prevented from taking leadership positions, then we’re fighting the pandemic with one hand tied behind our back. When women are subjected to sexual violence, then there’s that much less energy and resources to advance public health.”
The equation works both ways. Just as gender equality supports public health, public health can support gender equality—if proper attention is paid to it.
That’s why the UN Country Team works on both gender equality and COVID-19—and makes sure that the two go hand in hand.
For instance, Ahonsi led an effort to secure the donation of 100,000 face masks from China for the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation.
UNICEF reached out to 50 health influencers, including women leaders, who advocated for the proper use of masks, handwashing, and physical distancing.
The World Health Organization provided technical support to the government and health facilities, which includes the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre, where Lt. Moiwo is a leader.
“When we make progress in gender equality, we make progress in every area of human endeavour,” says Ahonsi.
Lt. Moiwo puts that notion into practice every day on the job. She believes that, by stepping up as a leader, she is helping dismantle discrimination against women.
“In this day and age, when you have the World Trade Organization led by a woman, women judges appointed to the International Criminal Court, women serving as combatants in the armed forces, and women serving as news anchors on major media outlets, it is unfortunate for anyone to continue relegating women to certain corners.”