Through my agricultural development project I have the opportunity to meet so many people from across Sierra Leone. I am always inspired by talking to them, and in particular hearing about their hopes and aspirations for the future.
On one of my recent visits I spoke with a young woman who talked to me about the issue of violence in our communities, particularly violence towards women. She told me that her work in the agricultural project, and the opportunities that it offers her for the future, made her feel empowered and optimistic that she could be financially independent and therefore safer.
I was moved by her resilience, but speaking to her was also heartbreaking. No woman in Sierra Leone should have to make these calculations.
The woman I spoke to that day reminded me about the terrible case of Sinnah Kai-Kargbo, another young Sierra Leonean woman, whose life was claimed by violence just last month. Sinnah Kai-Kargbo’s death made headlines – she worked at Skye Bank and her alleged murderer was the bank’s general manager, her boyfriend. Many other deaths go unreported.
Tragically these cases are far from unusual. Half of women in Sierra Leone say they have endured sexual or physical violence at the hands of their partner or husband. According to some sources, women in Sierra Leone are some of the most likely in sub-Saharan Africa to experience abuse at the hands of a husband or partner.
These are terrible statistics for our country. Gender based violence takes a physical, mental and psychological toll on all those who are directly impacted. Stopping violence against women is an indisputable moral imperative, and it is something that we must get to grips with as a country.
But gender based violence also has indirect impacts that touch all of us. According to the IMF, an increase in violence against women by 1 percentage point is associated with a 9 percent lower level of economic activity . This is an economic price we all pay, even if we are lucky enough to escape the direct consequences of this violence.
I have been working hard to develop Sierra Leone’s agricultural sector, in order to achieve food security as well as economic opportunity. My agricultural development project is not just about economic development, it is also about offering empowerment and dignity to communities for whom there are few opportunities. Within these communities it is women who stand to benefit the most. Cooperative agriculture projects elsewhere in Sierra Leone have already shown the potential of agricultural development to empower women in rural communities. I hope that through my agricultural developments I can support women across Sierra Leone to unlock a better future for themselves and their families.
We must however recognise that in order to build a fairer and more prosperous country, where no one need go hungry, all of our citizens must be safe and protected from violence. While giving women economic freedom and independence by improving economic and educational opportunities for girls is an important step in the longer term, the tragic case of Sinnah highlights that economic independence does not guarantee safety from violence for women in Sierra Leone.
One of the most worrying aspects of our country’s terrible record when it comes to gender based violence, is what the Campaign for Human Rights and Development International described as “a climate of official and institutional impunity”.
Strong laws – and consistent implementation of those laws – are critical to deter violence against women, protect victims of domestic violence, and promote women’s participation in the workforce. The Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act, recently passed by Parliament, marks a significant step in the right direction, but there are other steps that we can take too. Without transforming attitudes in our institutions we will never be able to offer women and girls the protection they should be able to expect. That means we must educate and enlist religious leaders, medical professionals and – yes – law enforcement officials at all levels, to ensure that our communities stand united against gender based violence. We also need to educate boys and young men, because to truly change this culture of violence we need them to become agents of change and to support gender equality.
These are just a few pieces of the puzzle, just a couple of the many steps that we need to take to build a fairer country, but the tragic circumstances of Sinnah’s death have shone a light on a widespread and enduring tragedy that ravages our country and on the urgency of our task. I hope that through my agricultural development project I can play my small part in empowering women in our country to build a better, safer future, but it is clear is that we can, and we must, do more to ensure that women in Sierra Leone can live in security and safety.