Engaging men and boys to address violence against women and girls in post-Ebola Sierra Leone
What has been the impact of the Ebola crisis on men’s engagement?
The outbreak of the dreadful Ebola Virus in Sierra Leone, the first of its kind ever in the history of our country, created serious operational setbacks for our work in engaging men and boys in ending violence against women and girls. Movement was highly restricted, and monitored by the military and police forces. Checkpoints or road blocks were mounted on all roads including bush foot pathways, and goods and services delivery became and remains expensive. Socialisation and community activity was limited, with all learning institutions closed for nearly a year, and businesses, including though not limited to food production services such as agricultural works and trade among others, drastically cut down. Above all, medical services delivery focused more on Ebola related treatment than other sicknesses. NGOs had to obtain special permits to travel to their operational areas - a requirement that was not easy to meet. Organising community level meetings proved very difficult and few people were willing to attend; fear and skeptical thoughts nearly overtook participants and there was very little or no team working spirit.
What have the challenges been?
The Ebola virus outbreak brought lots of challenges for men’s engagement work. These challenges can be categorised as follows:
Firstly, as a result of restrictions on movement, goods and services delivery became embarrassingly scarce, limited and remains very expensive up to today. Community level meetings became focused more on Ebola awareness and civic education activities, Ebola prevention, control and early warning signals, and early referral and treatment methods.
Secondly, while it is true that many homes comprising men, women and children of suspected and proven Ebola cases were quarantined for several days, it is worth mentioning that women and girls, though all of them quarantined, still provided home care services for the rest of the family. Food preparation, washing of clothes, cleaning of cooking utensils, caring for the old aged, the physically challenged, children, and husbands to mention few, remained the responsibility of women. The first and primary care givers of services, even when a family member gets sick, are and remain the women in the home. Subsequently, thousands of women were contaminated and were forced to untimely and unwilling graves (died a premature death).
A research report recently launched research by Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in collaboration with Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) states that more women died during the Ebola outbreak than men. The fact was openly accepted by the Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation Honorable Foday Sawi Lahai who described the report as 'very correct' and stressed that there were gaps and weaknesses both in the systems and structures of the country’s health set up as had been pointed out in the report.
What are the opportunities in post Ebola Sierra Leone for engaging men and boys in addressing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)?
The opportunities exist for engaging men and boys to address issues of violence against women and girls. As a first and giant step forward, many men before now refused to accept the fact that the unpaid labor women do and the major role they play in our everyday life in terms of services delivery is so great. Women highly contribute to the wellbeing of families and men need to acknowledge that. Men as leaders and major decision makers on issues that affect peoples’ lives at country level need to upgrade areas that have to do with health. In most cases, such facts when presented by national NGOs, or CBOs, or community members are either politicized or treated as such. But the report discussed above unveiled the truth; we are happy that the Deputy Minister of Health and Sanitation willingly and publicly accepted this. This gives a signal to those men as leaders, decision makers, policy makers and reinforcers that they should involve women in decision making, especially on issues that affect their lives such as sexual and reproductive health rights, and Medicare among others.
Furthermore, the family support unit of Sierra Leone police (SLP/FSU) states that there has been more SGBV reported cases during the Ebola period than ever. The gang rape to death of a commercial sex worker woman at Aberdeen beach Freetown, an act widely condemned by government, UN, NGOs, etc. is one of the problems faced. Similar incidents took place in Kailahun, Kono and Koinadugu districts.
There exists the need for engagement with men and boys to explore and discuss the role of men and boys being perpetrators of violence against women and girls in society, and the possible causes of their behavior. It is important to jointly discuss critical issues aimed at changing male attitudes and behavior and to work together to develop strategies for individual and collective actions in homes, institutions and communities so as to bring out peaceful change in male behavior and practice. In 2014 alone Ministry of Health and Sanitation data shows 199, 259 children were born; 101,301 were girls whilst 97,958 were boys. These figures represent registered births only at the time of publication. We cannot have prisons to accommodate all men and boys in the country if they were to perpetrate violence against women and girls.
Similarly, policies without awareness of gendered roles and behavior, without adequate civic education exercises including engagement of men and boys, and without rigid enforcement, are not sufficient to end violence against women and girls. Nearly 20 years ago, if not more, SGBV programs the world over started with huge resources but without engaging men and boys. Women and babies are still raped sometimes to death, abducted by warring factions, beaten at home.
Unless the engagement of men and boys is seriously embedded into policies to end violence against women and girls, these policies will not be successful. Such policies need to be context specific, taking into account the situation before, during and after Ebola.