At the age of 10, Abdulai Abubakarr Sesay began campaigning for women’s rights and against gender-based violence in his home of Sierra Leone. At 15, he set up the Tangible Academic Youth Forum Organisation (TAYFO) and later joined Service For Peace Sierra Leone in 2007.
In this interview for Day Fifteen of the 16 Days of Activism Campaign occurring across the world, Abdulai describes his experience combatting GBV in his country as well as the role of both men and women in this battle.
My name is Abdulai Abubakarr Sesay and I work as Executive Director at Service For Peace Sierra Leone. I’m also the Chairperson for Men on Africa Network for Advancing Gender Equality (MANAGE). A regional network that coordinates work around men and boys on gender equality.
Our mission is to ensure that vulnerable populations such as women, children and youth are empowered and live in an enabling environment through education, policy engagement and capacity building on developmental issues such as gender, human rights and health.
At what moment did you realize that you wanted to start working in the field of human rights, and with Service for Peace? What inspired you?
As a child, I saw the way women and girls were mistreated by subjecting them to what has been referred to as the ‘’culture and tradition’’ of our land. They were deprived of the chance to be educated, as well as making major decisions in their lives. For example, the father may decide that the son goes to school first, while the daughter must sit at home. I saw this since I was seven.
To make it worse, 11 years of bloody civil war also compounded the situation/problems of women and girls. During that time, I saw all sorts of violence against women and girls such as rape. Thus, women and girls have been deprived from accessing education and in taking up position of leadership.
Due to the grim realities described above, at the age of 15 I was inspired to set up Tangible Academic Youth Forum Organisation (TAYFO) and later joined Service For Peace Sierra Leone in 2007.
What’s your connection to Sierra Leone and this work?
Sierra Leone has been through hell amidst the 11 years of war. I have been through this deadly situation and have seen the brutality against women and girls.
I was deeply disturbed by this and decided to do something, so I became an advocate and joined Service For Peace in Sierra Leone.
Could you talk a bit more about the programs your organization runs, and that you’re directly involved with?
Currently, we are focusing on deconstructing gender norms and traditional practices by engaging men, boys and women on gender equality and transformational work. For example, we promote different educational programs for Girl Mothers, youths, and women. Most of our programs centre on workshops and training, as well as dialogue with communities.
I am directly involved in establishing Community Men and Boys Gender Clubs (CoMByGeCs) in seven districts. These are learning forums for men and boys on gender equality and transformation. We teach them how to support women and girls’ issues – such as addressing gender based violence in homes and in their communities.
These clubs work with women’s groups to share their experiences and roles in promoting women’s rights.
Also, I am currently working with different organizations to address the integration of gender to HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria eradication among women by educating them on prevention, care and control of these diseases.
In the video you sent us, you spoke about being outspoken in your activism against “harmful traditional practices” particularly female genital mutilation or cutting. How do you go about combatting these practices, and what are important things you keep in mind when talking about these issues with other men?
Firstly, there is huge marginalization and discrimination among men when a girl or a woman undergoes FGM. Secondly, men play a significant role in performing FGM. Most men, particularly in rural settings, build the shrine where FGM is performed, as well as give the permits to conduct the FGM ceremony. They are essentially the primary decision-makers in this process. Thus, when I talk to them I keep their role in mind, and I educate them about the dangers of harmful practices to women and girls and what they can do to address the issue.
What are women’s role in fighting gender-based violence? What are men’s roles? Do you feel taking a “gendered lens” on this issue helps or hinders progress?
Normally, when we talk about gender people think it’s only a conversation for women. Most men have the perception that gender issues are mainly for women to deal with, and that they do not have a role in it. Which is why over the years we have been educating men around stereotyping and patriarchal traditions on women’s rights issues.
Therefore, before we can even begin to talk about women’s roles we should talk about how to empower them to be aware of their role because this is still missing. For example, if a woman is among men and they ask her to lead to discussion, she will not because she believes that she cannot lead in the midst of men.
However, women must not only educate themselves but other women on gender related issues, as well as engage men and other stakeholders constructively. Overall, they should be empowered to take the lead!!
How does gender-based violence tie into other issues prevalent in Sierra Leone – such as economic underdevelopment and health insecurity?
Sierra Leone has been rated among the poorest countries in the world, where a majority of the country’s populations survive with less than a dollar per day. The country has also been rated as having one of the worst health systems.
In addition, the country has deep rooted culture, traditions and religious beliefs when it comes to women and girls rights issues. Though it is gradually changing, a majority of the men in the rural areas especially believe that women or girls should be in the kitchen. Even religious leaders, such as the Sheiks/imams or the pastors believe that only boys should go to school because they are the ones that will inherit their properties, whereas women and girls have to marry another man in order to sustain their livelihoods.
Imagine your sister, daughter or mother living in this kind of situation – what do you expect? You should expect nothing less than depression and a feeling of helplessness. This has led to acute poverty among the population of women and girls in Sierra Leone and this ultimately adds to the country’s economic hardship as a whole.
I truly feel that:
A country where women are poor, that country is also poor!!
A country where access to girl’s education is challenged and they cannot make their own life choices, that country is poor!!
When a family is poor, that family cannot educate all of their children – so what happens? The girls suffer the most. They are given up for marriage at an early age and are forced to undergo FGM as a birthright before that marriage. Ultimately, they will continue to face other forms of GBV in and outside the home.
How does access to education tie into the issue of gender-based violence in Sierra Leone? What work does your organization do in that space?
The right to education is regarded as universal and inviolable, yet all over the world children – especially girls – continue to be denied this right. In Sierra Leone, a gender gap in education persists, particularly from primary and secondary school onwards where lower levels of female participation are recorded. This is due in part to forms of violence and discrimination directed against girls. This situation is in turn perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty and gender inequality from generation to generation. Over the years, our organization has initiated educational programs for girls, such as scholarships to encourage more enrolment as well as supporting single parents with micro-finance programs that will enhance their capacity to support their child to attend school.
Working in this field is not easy, what has kept you motivated all of these years? Is there a particular experience you could share with us?
I am a survivor of and an eye witness to GBV. I was seriously affected by this, therefore my passion and perseverance of telling my personal story to inspire others has kept me going.
One particularly inspiring experience came when I was invited to South Africa for training. I didn’t know that my video was changing lives and inspiring other people. As soon as I entered the conference hall everybody began whispering to each other, “That’s the man on the video!” As a result, everyone became distracted while the Chancellor at the University of Cape Town was giving his speech.
Then the Chancellor asked, “What is that?” Once people told him that I was the man on the video they had just watched, the Chancellor immediately hugged me closely and welcomed me to the training.
Today, my video continues to inspire a lot of people because our partner Sonke Gender Justice Network is also using the video to raise funds to promote women’s rights. I have also received three scholarships to take gender and public health courses at the University of Cape Town as a result of this video.
I am always thrilled when people appreciate and acknowledge my work, and I believe this has been motivating me all of these years.
If you could imagine the ideal future 10-15 years down the line in Sierra Leone where you work, what would that future look like?
I will say this:
The future is bright for our women and girls!
There is light in the tunnel for them!
People, especially men and boys, will begin to change their mentality and attitudes about women rights. And they must, as they are the major drivers of violence against women and girls.
I believe that in time, more women will gain the freedom to drive their own future and more girls will allowed to educate themselves.