Engendering Better Relations in Sierra Leone

“My home is more peaceful now that my wife has a voice in decision making,” said Frank, the village chief in Vaama Community, near Pujehun, in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province.

Frank and 44 other members of his community (including 20 women) had just completed a training program in leadership and good governance, led by staff members from the Diocese of Bo, part of the Church of the Province of West Africa. The training focused on leadership development, with particular emphasis on ways to improve transparency, accountability and honesty in social institutions and even in family life. Frank was skeptical at first, but he decided to give it a try, because he knew the trainers and had seen good things come out of other projects the Diocese of Bo had helped to initiate.

During the two-day training, Frank and his fellow participants studied examples of how differently a given situation could turn out, depending on the qualities of the leader. They also had a chance to role-play scenarios in which they could practice communicating and living out relationships in ways that placed less emphasis on traditional power dynamics, such as those based on age, gender, social status and ethnicity. Instead, participants focused more on reaching the best outcomes.

Not long after the training, Frank began to see real changes in his community. The young people had joined forces to help build homes for residents in need, with money from the village’s revolving fund. The community members also came together to find a practical solution to the problem of transporting their children to the primary school, several towns away. Instead of hiring a bus and paying for fuel and a driver, they decided to pool their resources to hire a local teacher, who now leads classes in the village center.

Frank even began to see changes in his home life, after making an effort to be more open with his wife about household finances and include her in decisions about spending. As a result, their relationship has improved — but the positive effects don’t stop there. Because of their status in the village, other families around the community are following their example, relating better with each other and working together more harmoniously.

The leadership training program follows on the success of two other projects initiated through the Diocese of Bo. The first was a community agriculture program, which empowered women with training, tools and seeds to start gardens on land belonging to local churches. In addition to enriching their families’ diets by producing nutritious food, the women also earned money by selling surplus produce in the markets. Growing in self-confidence and gaining respect in their communities and homes as breadwinners, many of these women now share more equally in decision-making with their husbands.

The other initiative preceding the leadership training program was the introduction of theNetsforLife® program partnership, which trained local Malaria Control Agents (MCAs) to distribute mosquito nets in the community and monitor their use to help prevent the disease. In many cases, female MCAs visit other women in their homes, demonstrating how to hang mosquito nets and offering information on how to avoid infection, identify symptoms and seek treatment. Equipped with knowledge and nets, these women are empowered to protect their households against malaria, a disease that still kills nearly one million people every year.

“All of these efforts are steps toward increasing gender and social equality,” said Danielle Tirello Givens, Program Officer for Episcopal Relief & Development, who is responsible for advising the organization on gender issues as they relate to development. “Helping people grow in confidence and realize that they have agency is part of it, but engaging with those traditionally in positions of authority, and encouraging them to really listen and allow space for other people to express themselves, is also important. Both are necessary in order for communities to realize that everyone has something to offer, regardless of perceived status, and that by working together they can achieve really amazing results.”