Sierra Leone generally makes the international news for all the wrong reasons, particularly when it comes to women’s issues. There is no denying the amount of work still to be done in the area of Sierra Leone’s gender relations. One way that change is arriving is through the rapidly growing number of positive, resourceful women who are leading businesses and organisations that make an impact, as well as leave inspiration in their wake. The women we have talked to for this series are professionalising their respective sectors, and improving the social and business landscape for women and men in Sierra Leone.
Fatou Wurie is a social activist and storyteller. She formed and runs the Survivor Dream Project (SDP) – an organisation supporting women, girls and young men who have survived post-traumatic events. It is an endeavour that reflects the pairing of creativity and advocacy that is so reflective of her work.
She returned to Sierra Leone in 2011. It was her 24th birthday. “I was motivated by an overriding sense of responsibility to better understand the context of my home country so that I could serve Sierra Leone. I was envious of people who had that feeling of home. When I was at university I became the African expert, but I was as European as the rest,” she reflects. Her mother was in Sierra Leone – the only real family member she had in the country. “I was a stranger in my homeland.”
Fatou had taken a degree in Gender Studies and Political Science in university, but it is through the creative side of her nature that she processes events and experiences. She became more involved in the arts, she says, as a result of her experience of sexual violence in Vancouver. “A lot of what I’ve done comes from the point of view of trying to heal myself.”
Once in Sierra Leone, she started working for MamaYe. This is a DFID funded initiative addressing maternal and child mortality. She began as the part-time communications coordinator, before taking over the role of Advocacy Lead across Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. “How do you measure advocacy? That was the challenge. The MamaYe model was unique. It was evidence based advocacy, gathering and consolidating data and making it accessible to a wide audience. We captured and communicated that through imagery, blogs, stories.”
The push for better maternal and child health yielded results. By 2014, almost every pregnant woman across the country made at least one antenatal visit. Then Ebola came and pushed their work backwards. Fatou spent some time travelling before being called back to work for the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) on the Ebola response, plugging gaps in the areas of communications and gender.
“Ebola had disproportionately affected women. Post Ebola, there were responses for survivors everywhere, but most were not sustainable. Nor was there anything devoted to women,” she says.
The Survivor Dream Project was born out of her empathy with Ebola’s female survivors. For the initial six months, it was entirely self-funded. With the support of a friend and colleague, Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh, Fatou offered a safe space with bi-weekly psycho-social support for 20 women who had survived the Ebola. They also introduced a more unusual component – make-up and photography sessions for the women.
Fatou explains: “It was about making space to dignify and humanise their experience. For many of the women, it was the first time they had been touched, the first time someone had told them that they and their experiences matter, the first time they had worn makeup. It took us six months to earn their trust sufficiently for them to really tell us what they had gone through.”
The programme now works with 50 women. It has set up an education fund and offers mentorship and capacity building. “I am very clear about my purpose,” Fatou says. “It revolves around serving and contributing to this country. Education gives you a basic level of liberation. I would like to see that for many more women.”