Mission Possible: As women take the lead in Sierra Leone, the future brightens

A woman farmer smiles cheerfully at the camera as other women harvest crops behind her.
Photo: FAO/Momodu Deen Swarray

Sometimes, the crisis in West Africa and the Sahel region is so difficult and so complicated as to seem virtually unsolvable. 

Climate change. Corruption. Youth joblessness. Poor social services. Conflict among communities. 

It would be all too easy to give up. But where many people see only a mission impossible, the United Nations sees an opportunity. The UN’s work in Sierra Leone has become more complicated this year with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Organization is supporting the Government response by transporting medical supplies, working with farmers to double their productivity and income, deploying gender experts to five districts to ensure that gender is included in response plans, and providing life-saving supplies and food for the most vulnerable people. The UN team has helped the national school feeding programme, serving 330,000 children in 11 selected districts.

“Any solution that leaves out half the population…”

People in Sierra Leone are beset by many of the problems that also face countries in the Sahel, not least poverty and conflicts that stem in part from dwindling natural resources due to climate change. 

Often these take the form of disputes over land. For example, there may be a question where one property starts and another one ends. The problems often seem small, but they reflect larger and long-simmering tensions over class, ownership, and land rights. 

Sometimes, these disputes turn violent, and may even unleash bigger waves of violence.

“It’s no coincidence that these problems sprout and grow bigger even as women are discriminated against,” says Nyabenyi Tito Tipo, Country Representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sierra Leone. “Any solution that leaves out half the population is bound to fail.” 

That’s why the government is training women as well as men to take on new leadership roles in peacebuilding, agriculture, entrepreneurship, and governance. The programme operates in four districts around the country, and is getting support from the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund (PBF), the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Women making peace

The project is training local people to be peacebuilders in their home communities. So far, a total of 80 “community peace and conflict monitors” have been trained to work in their villages and towns to spot the signs of conflict before it leads to violence. 

“We have learned how to see the sparks before they turn into fires, metaphorically speaking,” says Susan Pessima, a training participant from Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District. “That’s important, because fires can spread fast if the conditions are right for it.”

Women are essential in building peace, she says, and must be empowered.

“We women know our communities well. We are in the homes, we are in the markets. We go out on the streets. We see things that other people don’t.” 

The work of these 60 women and 20 men has been backed up by another 800 people who have been trained on gender and land-rights issues, as well as an educational campaign that has produced jingles, radio programmes, pamphlets, and posters in multiple languages.

The same commitment to gender equality is at work as young women and men are trained as land para-surveyors. With more and more land grabs escalating into violent disputes in Sierra Leone, the government has made it a high priority to map customary land rights. More than 320 trainees combined the latest geospatial technologies with old-fashioned grit, as they walked through thick forests, climbed hills, and crossed swamps to map the boundaries in more than 20,000 acres of land.

Caption: Young men and women are trained as para-surveyors to map family and village land boundaries.

Photo: FAO/Momodu Deen Swarray

Women making decisions

The project involves women not just in making peace but in making decisions. Women have been appointed to half of the positions in all of the 16 newly created “village area land committees” in the participating districts, and two villages have their first-ever women Town Chiefs. 

Another training brought together Paramount Chiefs, local leaders, and mummy queens in selected chiefdoms to help empower women in carrying out the government’s national land policy.  

One of the training participants was Desmond Kangobai, Paramount Chief of Selenga Chiefdom, Bo District. He says the message of the training was strong, and the practical guidance was useful.

“If we want lasting peace and prosperity in our communities, then women must be involved from top to bottom and from start to finish.”

Women making money

Women farmers have a harder time of it than their male counterparts, as they are liable to be discriminated against in financial services—a big factor in poverty. The four-district programme has also trained nearly 1,000 farmers—85% of them women—on finance and cooperatives. Participants have formed Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLA) for mutual support. 

VSLA members can get small loans to cover expenses such as school fees and medical bills without selling farm equipment or other productive assets. That means they can contribute more to their household incomes. With support from UN-backed programmes, eight new farming cooperatives are now being registered with the government. 

Another 2,500 people—80% of them women—have been trained in good practices in agronomy and agriculture, with a focus on groundnuts, cassava, rice, and pepper. Previously, most women farmers were practicing slash-and-burn agriculture; such practices may be more profitable in the short-term, but they damage the land and environment in the long-term. With training in climate-smart agriculture, participating farmers learned skills for planting, mulching, and managing soil and water. These trainings were backed up by radio and print materials in several languages. 

Imaging a better future for Sierra Leone

Training programme officials and participants say they feel more hopeful than ever before about the prospects for their villages and their country. 

“I learned a lot in the training, and I appreciate that,” says Paramount Chief Desmond Kangobai. “Just as important is the fact that the government and the United Nations have affirmed the role of women in the country’s future.” 

Adds the FAO’s Nyabenyi Tito Tipo, “One solution to the problems of Sierra Leone and the Sahel is simple but very difficult. Women. Women have got to be empowered. And men have got to embrace women’s power. There’s nothing we can’t do if we do it together.” 

Caption: Paramount chiefs, mummy queens, and local leaders are trained on peacebuilding.

Photo: FAO Sierra Leone

Produced in collaboration with the UN Peacebuilding Fund. Written by Fatimah Inayet, UN Peacebuilding and Celine Adotevi, Development Coordination Office, with editorial support from Paul Vandecarr, Development Coordination Office. Special thanks to the UN country team in Sierra Leone for their support.

Photos used for the story were taken prior to COVID-19, and before social distancing and other prevention measures were put in place.

UN entities involved in this initiative
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
International Labour Organization
Other entities involved in this initiative
United Nations

Goals we are supporting through this initiative