Traditionally regarded as a male-dominated institution, the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) is gradually transforming into one of equal opportunity for both men and women. The new thinking is to get as many qualified women in the military as possible to meet the demands of the United Nations peacekeeping operations worldwide.
As recent as April this year, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres admonished the Security Council that women’s rights, voices and participation must be at “the centre of peacekeeping decision making”, describing them as “central to sustainable solutions” to challenges facing the Organisation worldwide.
Sierra Leone is among 151 Member States who have signed on to the UN Secretary General’s Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, which calls for women’s participation in every stage of peace operations, and integrates a gender perspective into all analysis, planning, and implementation and reporting.
Translating this locally, the RSLAF, through its annual gender audit found out that out of its 8, 500 personnel
only about 5% are women; far less than the UN requirement of at least 15%. Moreover, the small crop of career women in the RSLAF is nearing their retirement period, and the need to fill their spaces is a concern for the institution. The highest ranking female officer of the RSLAF, Brig. General Kestoria Kabia, retired in 2017.
So, to bridge this gap, the RSLAF, with support from the International Security Advisory Team (ISAT), embarked on an all-female recruitment drive of 300 trainees, apart from its regular annual intake of both males and females. This is the first and largest all-females recruitment undertaken by the RSLAF in more than three decades or so.
“We have made a commitment as a Government and an institution to get more career women in the RSLAF, not only to meet the demands of international best practice especially in the area of peacekeeping but nationally also to give women the equal opportunity to contribute to building a military of the future,” said the Deputy Minister of Defence, Col. (Rtd.) Simeon N. Sheriff.
The ISAT intervention
ISAT has proved itself to be a valued friend and trusted partner in the development of the RSLAF over the years working in partnership with several different organisations and within the UK government in Sierra Leone. They specifically work with the Sierra Leone Police, Office of National Security and the RSLAF and on several different projects.
According to the ISAT Ministry of Defence Advisor, Lt. Col. Matt Palmer, one of the things they realised last year in the Army was that they were about a thousand under strength and also there was only a small percentage of female representation.
“So it seems like a good opportunity to work with the Army to not only increase numbers overall but those of women as well,” said Lt. Col. Palmer.
ISAT support has been in two parts- the recruiting and the training. They have provided all of the funding, but
the RSLAF has done lots of the thinking and working, the Ministry of Defence and the various departments within the military.
“We are extremely proud and pleased to sponsor the current female training programme, coinciding as it does with the government’s gender initiatives for Sierra Leone as well as the United Nation’s requirement to see more females represented in peacekeeping operations around the world,” said Lt. Col. Palmer on behalf of the team.
Lt. Col. Palmer was actively involved in the recruitment process and is monitoring the ongoing training regularly with keen interest.
The recruitment process
Buying into the political will on the empowerment of women and girls, the RSLAF used the First Lady of the country to formally launch the all-female recruitment drive during the unveiling of her ‘Hands-off our girls’ project in December 2018.
The funding from the UK government through ISAT is to support the recruitment and training of 300 servicing recruits and cadet officers, but according to Asst. Chief of Defence Staff Personnel, Brig. Gen. P. K. Lavahun, they were overwhelmed with applications.
“We received up to 4000 applications for just 300 places,” he said. “That gave us a real headache, but it is good news for the RSLAF. Apart from the fact that there’s lack of employment in the country generally, it shows that the public, especially women, are now seeing the Army as an institution through which they can better serve their country.”
“The whole process of recruitment was decentralised in the regions because we wanted it to be community owned,” explained Brig. Gen. Lavahun, adding that there were less ethical issues to manage. However, he said there were many lessons learnt, including time constraint but some were internal issues they were able to handle swiftly.
Eventually, a total of 332 females were recruited; give and take that some may opt out of the training the 300 threshold will still not be affected.
The training commenced on the week of the International Women Day on March 2019 at the Armed Forces Training Center at Benguima, according to the officials, to re-emphasise the military’s commitment to empowering women within its ranks. The recruits came in on the 9th, and the cadets on the 10th and actual training started on the 11th.
Of the 332 trainees, 62 are cadet officers, 42 combatant cadets, 20 specialist cadets and 270 recruits.
When we visited the training centre, the trainees were out in the field doing various forms of the parade and physical exercises. Dressed in full military fatigue, it’s difficult to identify them as females.
“This is just the basic training for all of them because in the military when you come in from civil, you have to do basic training and then you graduate and return to your respective units, where you are going to embark on your advanced training,” said the Chief Training Instructor- Cadets, Lt. Col. Henry Aaron Robin.
The combatants and the infantry recruits will go through six months of rigorous training, while the specialist and trade recruits will take three months, but will come back towards the end of the training to rejoin their colleagues for the passing-out parade.
The training is divided into two categories; the major and minor disciplines. Some of the contents of the major disciplines were what we witnessed during our visit: physical fitness, map reading and so many other things, whilst the minor looks at French language, general military education and military law, among others.
The trainees are also assessed on cognitive and psychomotor aspects. Psychomotor deals with weapon training and some other physical exercises, whilst the cognitive deals with the reading and writing aspects.
“Generally, the training is going on well,” assured Lt. Col. Robin. “They (trainees) are cooperating, and they are coming on fine; it’s early days yet, but the determination to finish on a high note is there.”
Similarly, Welfare/Counseling Officer Maj. (Rtd.) Euphemia Oluremi Cole was upbeat about the training, comparing it to her own time 37 years ago.
“Obviously, it’s a far cry from what we went through considering the period way back then. However, this training is going on very good. I honestly admire the trainees and their determination,” said Maj. (Rtd.) Euphemia.
However, according to the Commandant of the Armed Forces Training Center, Brig. Gen. Augustine K. Fefegula, it’s not an easy task to train all-females, but so far they have been able to handle the situation very well. The trainees were expected to start the jungle exercise for them to see how jungle operation looks like,
according to the Commandant who lamented about logistical
challenges like inadequate bedding and vehicles that affect the
smooth running of the centre.
Prospects and opportunities
The senior management of the RSLAF is very much sensitive now to provide the capacity to women to help them contribute to the progress of the Army, says Asst. Chief of Defence Staff, Gender and Equal Opportunity, Brig. General Abu Bakarr Conteh.
“We are not only increasing the number of women, but we are also capacitating them to be able to perform every other job within the force. We want to get them into positions so that people will look at the institution as being gender sensitive,” he said, adding that the Ministry of Defence intends to have a female unit in the future to deploy on peacekeeping operations.
Unfortunately, said Director of Gender and Equal Opportunity, Col. Leona Yema Tucker, there’s no woman at the senior management body of the RSLAF where decisions are taken.
“Most of us (women) in the top cadre are on the verge of retirement, and so we need young people to come on board. One of the aspirations of the RSLAF is to take part fully in military operations, as well as Peace Support Operations overseas. We want to export peace, but the United Nations cannot approve that if we don’t have at least 15% female representation and the Army cannot give 15% when we don’t have it,” she said.
In this same vein, the Chief of Defence Staff, Brig. General Brima Sesay, assured that there is no gender discrimination in terms of women competing for higher positions in the RSLAF.
“There is no restriction in terms of gender whether infantry or officer, as long as you have the right and requisite training, doing your professional courses, taking the right path, handling yourself very well, having an impeccable character, a woman can rise to the top. However, my honest hope is to see a woman officer at the very top of the RSLAF,” said Brig. Gen. Sesay.
He added that the prospect for women in international peacekeeping operations is clear.
“For example, the UN thinking presently is that women are better peacekeepers than men. Most of the positions that are currently coming up in the UN give preference to women. So this new crop of females that are coming up in the RSLAF, their careers will be so structured and so successful that they will become the envy of women outside the force. They will open the door for more women and capable ones too, to opt to join the Army,” continued Brig. Gen. Sesay.
Theresa Yatta Iye Moiba- Recruit 557
I decided to join the Army because it has always been my dream to be a soldier. I always wanted to empower myself, and I feel the Army has given us women the opportunity to do that. The start of the training was difficult, but I have been able to cope. The instructors are amazing, and the facilities are excellent. I hope to
achieve the best from this training.
The training goes with discipline, and if you come to the military without discipline, you will not be able to adapt because it is all about
self-confidence and discipline.
In the end, you should be able to be a different person out there.
Rachel S. Sesay- Officer Cadet 216- Infantry
The training has been good so far, and I am enjoying it as well. I want to let my fellow women out there who think the military is for dropouts to know that’s not the case. When you come here, you learn a lot. To be part of the military is a passion and a privilege for me. I have always wanted to be in the military. I am training as a cadet officer. After this training, I will like to pursue further training in the military.
Yainkain Ballay Kamara- Officer Cadet 219- Specialist
I was a lawyer before I decided to get into the Army. The training is good, and every provision has been made for us to feel welcome here. As a Sierra Leonean, I decided to join the Army to contribute to the country’s development. I also want to promote my integrity and safeguard lives and property. Even though some may say, I have been a lawyer, but I think joining the military is one of the best ways to serve my country.
Everything is going on fine, and we are all doing our best to achieve what we came here for. We are being encouraged by senior military personnel.
The military is a disciplined institution, and I am learning so many things. I now know how to control myself, when to be on time, how to give respect to who respect is due and above all the training has developed my physical fitness. I came here a bit lazy, but I am beginning to feel fit and confident.
I will encourage my colleagues out there to join the military. It is not a bad institution as we see ourselves as brothers and sisters and we care for each other. You stand to achieve a lot if you chose to join.
Sunday April 14th was the Grand Finale of arguably the mostpopular television show in Sierra Leone, Housemates Salone. As such gargantuan spotlight beamed on the stage of the Bintumani Conference Hall, no one could miss a starring character, Monica Yeanie Ghaliwa, the visually impaired or blind contestant who made it to the last couple. Of a first 40, then 20 contestants. That the show is profusely driven by fandom and their votes on the staged ‘reality’ of ‘housemates,’ is testimony that the ordinary Josephine Blow can and does care about the lives of those citizens afflicted with disability. Watching the live streaming on Facebook, I am nearly sure I saw moments pregnant with celebrity wedding possibility, wrapped in sensitivity. What do I mean? Even the First Lady Fatima Bio was careful not to mention anything about Monica’s disability in her talk at the climax of the event as not to appear prejudiced. The question then buzzing in my head was, what would Monica represent outside those walls when the curtains fall? Now that she has all the visibility that comes with celebrity, what would she do to represent the less-or-non-visible disabled persons languishing where no one looks or cares to?
Some disabilities are more equal than others in Sierra Leone. Some have reached the level of “establishment disabilities,” while others are yet to be understood or categorized as disability, let alone have an infrastructure put in place to alleviate the conditions of persons suffering from such disabilities. We can chalk the odds up to ignorance, sundry backwardness and decadence that make our culture in deficit of the terms of modernity not oblivious of the multifarious conditions, which qualify as a disability. The government of President Maada Bio
has centred Human Capital Development at the fulcrum of their governance policies. One thing is clear, insofar as Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) are concerned, there are so many cracks, nay gaping holes, in the system that ensure a colossal waste of their human capital. I’ll try to explain.
Autism is one such disability that has no place in the spectrum of disabilities, affects thousands, and been left at the mercy of superstition and arrant ignorance. Children born with autism and its varied manifestations in Sierra Leone are treated less than human and said to be demon-possessed or retarded (fool-fool). Those with the condition that are epileptic and said to be attacked by “their devils” when they have their seizures; when they are non-verbal they are called (mumu or bobo); when they have an Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), they are treated as stubborn (Tranga Yase), and the list goes on for ways we have ostracized and dehumanized people with Autism in our culture. And we are not talking about a Stone Age practice. Like yours truly, there sure are many reading this right now who know or grew up with, worse, even clapped and sang, ridiculing someone autistic.
Enter Mariama Korrca Kandeh. She is mother to an adult son with Autism. She raised him in England, where there are obviously better conditions to have and grow up with the condition. Still, it was not a walk in the park. She had to remove her son from school for bad treatment and go the long extra mile to ensure her child has all the opportunities for healthy growth. Kandeh is co-founder of Autism Voice and was in Sierra Leone to promote a chapter. She indicates that the main impetus for founding the group was the treatment her son
received from other Sierra Leoneans in the UK. On April 2nd, the day set aside globally to to pay attention to the disease by the United Nations and other bodies, Kandeh was on AYV Television with a passionate plea for acceptance, empathy and action for the autistic, as her group busies with outreach to schools and communities around Freetown. Trained in the social aspects of the disease, she tried to explain in lay terms what it meant to be neurotypical and neurodiverse, also explaining that the condition almost always manifests with comorbidity
like dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD or ADHD and other disorders that could be misunderstood for stubbornness or just rank rudeness. And there are the gifts that also come with the condition. A lot of autistic persons seem to thrive in STEM courses. Working in a country where there is zero research, and where people still associate the condition with the demonic, Kandeh quizzed: “Everybody knows computers or Microsoft, the guy who gives the mosquito nets; would you call Bill Gates a ‘witch’?” She furthered, dropping names like Prof. Stephen Hawkins and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg emphasize the widespread functionality, or how (in)visibly the disability could manifest in people living with Autism. Kandeh acknowledged that even in England where she raised up her now adult, fully functioning, autistic son, it is so tough in functionality, or how (in)visibly the disability could manifest in people living with Autism. It is so tough for people born with the condition that they still record among the highest rates of suicides. “It took a lot of work to get our son who is now into engineering to sit still for a few minutes, until he was able to sit through a 90 minutes class,” she noted, adding that the work of autism awareness is “the beginning of a long journey” of acceptance, love and support for the autistic, especially children. Check this out folks, even the only institution that seems to be dealing with what could be autistic children, with a roll of 74, is called, and I am not kidding, Hossetta Abdullah Centre for the Mentally Retarded. A long way to go indeed!
All that is just for Autism. Previously, on AYV TV, I had watched a smart Albino teenager articulating the need to understand Albinism as a condition of disability in Sierra Leone and make the requisite accommodations in especially learning environments. There is mental illness. With over a decade of civil war followed by the Ebola outbreak and the attendant traumas they visited on Sierra Leoneans, one has to only know that there are two psychiatrists in a country of some seven million, to see that the odds are stacked to the sky of many undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses. One can go on and on, and hear the question, “so what are the authorities doing about PWDs?” As usual, they have passed legislation to deal with it. The Persons with Disabilities Act of 2011 is a good law were it implemented in letter and spirit. The first 13 sections necessitate the forming of a Commission for PWDs. That has been done, even if perfunctorily or to satisfy the requirements of donor/development partners. There are sections of that law that were even timed. Five years of its coming into effect, 2016, the law sanctioned the provision of disability access to public transportation, premises, employment, basic services and amenities. Yet to be seen! Let alone things like, all television stations have mandatory sign language interpreters or there be disability-compliant telephone services. And what’s up with the mandated National Fund for Disability?
Back to Monica Yeanie Ghaliwa and her newfound celebrity. It is heartening to see outpouring of felicity and support for her. Another thing one must also see is a legible disability, which Sierra Leoneans can recognize as capable of reaching heights. They know Professor Eldred Jones. They must have listened to the Voice of the Handicapped, 96.2 FM Mustapha Pabai Attilla or Cullenzo Cullen on air. The former became a Deputy Minister in the previous government and the latter is the head of the Commission for Disability. Ghaliwa lived to 18 before
she succumbed to glaucoma, but was already a disability rights activist, feminist and journalist before the Housemates Salone experience. How many times do you think of an amputee, someone with polio without thinking of them as victims, beggars or like we used to call PWDs handicapped? It is difficult to see any disability as an establishment one. For the blind or visually impaired to be seen as capable of achieving many
things, Sir Milton Margai literally laid the foundation for a school for the blind on the first anniversary of independence in 1962 at the current location on Wilkinson Road, named after him. With assistance from the UK, the institution has turned out hundreds of blind persons into productive Sierra Leoneans. It is no wonder there is a Sir Milton Cheshire Home also in Bo that has catered to disabled persons. We can go into conjecture about whether the first prime minister of the country was himself partially disabled or that his medical background pulled him strongly toward the disabled; one thing is clear: his legacy with PWDs is lasting.
We have not seen any leader come along that will equal Sir Milton Margai or at least continue his legacy. The work of awareness, love and empowerment of PWDs does not end at allowing a few capable blind persons in the spotlight now and then. The firmament of disability must be broadened to encompass the illegible forms as we grapple with them in the 21st century. Every effort, disability and minute counts!