A few days ago, on Thursday, 25th March 2010, I participated in a conference entitled "Womenís Empowerment and Employment", convened by the Danish Government in Copenhagen. Three female UN system chief executives were invited, along with many other prominent women from all over the world and from all walks of life. Politics, business, academia, judiciary, civil society: all were represented. The organizers had asked me to take part in a discussion on "crossing cultural and social barriers" Ė and, along with Bob Zoellick, President of the World Bank, I was one of the very few male invitees or panellists.
In opening the conference, the Danish Minister for Development Cooperation Mr. SÝren Pind noted that "investment in women pays off. We know that. And yet huge obstacles to employment bar women from accessing well-paid and secure work or establishing themselves as self-employed".
A day after the conference ended, my aunt, Mrs. Posseh Njai, passed away in Freetown. Aunty Posseh was a trailblazer. In the 1980s, she was appointed Chief Social Development Officer and Professional Head of Social Services for Sierra Leone Ė one of the first women from the provinces to reach such high office. In fact, for those from the Great Scarcies area Ė Mange Bureh, Rokupr, and Samu Ė she was for quite a while the most senior woman from that region in the entire civil service. For almost three decades, she dedicated herself to promoting the rights of women and children. She fought hard for legislation to secure rights for widows and to protect women in divorce situations. She developed procedures for the adoption of children and used her position to tackle issues such as child delinquency, film censorship, and many others.
Aunty Posseh knew instinctively that gender inequality holds a country back. She could see the social ramifications and economic effects of what is a multi-facetted issue. Unfortunately, in Africa today, and recently in our country, the debate on gender is sometimes monopolized by just one of those facets Ė FGM. Over the last few days, as I remembered my aunt, I also thought of the other women from my childhood who strived to change or improve the status of women in our society. These female role models showed me in my youth what women can be and what women can do. They also taught me just how complex and wide-ranging gender inequality can be, impacting on everything from maternal and infant health to a countryís economy.
We can take some comfort in news of progress. Recent UN data shows that, since 1990, Sierra Leone has moved forward in our efforts to tackle maternal and infant mortality rates. The Maternal Mortality Ratio has fallen considerably in the past 10 years, from 1,800 per 100,000 in 2000 to 857 in 2008. This could be attributed to many factors, including a drop in the total fertility rate from 6.4 in 2005 to 5.1 in 2008, as well as the increased and prolonged participation of girls in education.
Yet many challenges still exist which require our collective attention, especially those among the Diaspora who are doctors and nurses. UN reports and the 2009 Maternal Newborn and Child Survival global countdown profiles indicate that around 5,400 women and 70,000 under fives die every year in our country. Most of these children die during the first 28 days of life. And the current global economic downturn makes things even more difficult Ė neither the Government nor the donor community can hope to solve these problems on their own.
Speaking about health brings to mind the golden days of my childhood, when the nursing profession was highly respected. I was so used to seeing my mum and sisters in their traditional gowns
and ducket-and-lappa that the main image I had of a professional woman was a nurse/midwife or teacher/headmistress.
Some of you might remember Mrs. Hashmia Conteh (nee Dyfan, wife of the late Dr. Haj Conteh of Makeni); Mrs. Sophie Yilla (nee King, wife of lawyer A.B. Yilla, and pioneer of Brookland Pharmacy and Daycare service in Brookfield); Mrs. Serah Yilla (nee Fraser, wife of Drissa Yilla of Bo); and the three Fraser in-laws who were all nurses/midwives and cooperated to establish the famous Netland Hospital at Congo-cross. How I admired their dedication to saving lives. To me they were also the epitome of professionalism, always in their immaculate white dresses and that exquisite head-piece with a crown fixed at the back to demonstrate experience and seniority in service.
Those of us who grew up in the Bo and Kenema area would remember Sister Saffa of Kpondahun Road; Sister Samai at Coronation Field; Sister Martha Yilla at Yilla compound; Sister Emma Sidique; Sister Nyama Sesay; and Dr. /Mrs Ganda, all of Bo and Kenema hospitals. Most of these women contributed to the establishment of the Sierra Leone Nurses Training School, an institution close to the heart of my family. In fact, my fatherís house at Murray Town was one of the first locations of the School before it moved to its current location in downtown Freetown.
Thanks to these women and countless others, many of our sisters today are health care professionals in Saudi Arabia, the USA and the UK. I know from bankers and architects in Freetown that our Diaspora nurses are one of the main sources of remittances to Sierra Leone, which are estimated by DFID to be about $150 million per year in total. That in itself is a clear indication of the potential economic contribution of women, even in perceived "gender-typical" roles. Just imagine what more could be achieved if the barriers to participation were to fall away.
We should capitalize on one of the outstanding positive cultural characteristics of our society Ė all our women are natural entrepreneurs (in case you have forgotten, just visit any market in any part of Sierra Leone or West Africa). But it is hard to be a successful business woman in Africa; have a beer at Nancy Nicholasí store at Clocktower in Bo and listen to her 40 years experience, or visit Joy Samakehís exquisite Balmaya restaurant at Congo-cross. The unique business acumen of our women, their cultural freedom to engage in business, and their growing role in labour markets needs to be nurtured, supported and scaled up if we are to achieve rapid economic growth. Development practitioners need to look at the positive aspects of African societies and cultures, rather than portraying the so-called negative cultural barriers all the time.
The Sierra Leone 2004 population and housing census showed that females constitute a little over 50 per cent of our population. Bob Zoellick made a statement that really resonated with me: "Gender Economics is Smart Economics". Women are half of our workforce. No serious business would leave half its valuable human capital unutilized. For sustained economic growth, it is therefore imperative that we build the productive capacities of our women through education and skills development. Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, noted that societies must give women access to productive assets, coupled with legal protection and full political participation at all levels of governance, including local government. Opening up the political space for women, and securing their enhanced involvement in the formal sector labour force, requires prudence and strategic patience rather than aggressive confrontational approaches. Aunty Posseh also took this approach.
She returned to Sierra Leone in 1966-67, at the time of the first critical transition of power from the ruling government at that time to the opposition. She strictly upheld the code of conduct that a civil servant remains neutral, and serves the government of the day. At the same time, she was a true sixties lady, confident, educated and strongly believed in defining her own identity. She graduated from Ashland, Oregon, with a degree in Social Work and pursued a post-graduate diploma in the University of Wales. She showed very early in her life that she wanted to define who she was and what she stood for as a woman. So a few years after she arrived in the US, she officially dropped the English name Beatrice (as she was known at Harford School in Moyamba), to take her traditional Susu/Temne name of YaBom-Posseh. Perhaps she was inspired by stories of Madam Yoko or Chief/Madam Ella Koblo Gulama. It was the beginning of her constant struggle to question the status quo, to help the men in power understand gender issues, and challenge them to take child welfare issues seriously. She joined the long line of other women professionals in the service of the State, such as Mrs. Murrieta Olu-Williams (the first female permanent secretary), Justice Berthan-Macauley, perhaps our first female High Court judge, and the prolific writer, Talabi Lucan (who is also no laggard when it comes to technology Ė she sent me an email last year though she is well close to ninety).
All of these women represented the "positive anti-establishment persona", breaking out of the stereotypical roles assigned to our mothers. I know from my wife, Philo, and my sister, Kankay, that in the 1980s and 1990s Posseh Njai, Professor Nana-Pratt, Professor Kadi Sesay, Professor Amie Davies, the late Professor Florence Daniya, the late Professor Yatie Lewis and others, were important role models for them as they struggled to define their own identities. These women in academia were like Julia Roberts in the movie "Mona Lisa Smile". The appointment of Madam Aisha Tejan-Jalloh as our current Chief Justice by the President reinforces the trend towards political inclusion.
Aunty Posseh, will be laid to rest on Wednesday 31st March. We wish her a safe passage. May her legacy live on. To our mothers and sisters, we need you. We are equals. Gender issues are both about equality and about smart economics.
¬© Copyright by Awareness Times
Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.