In the rural communities of Sierra Leone, women who are experiencing sexual abuse, gender-based violence and restricted bodily autonomy often have just one hope when seeking justice; the intrepid journalists at Media Matters for Women Sierra Leone.
Now in its 10th year of operation, MMW has grown from a small local podcasting network to a nationwide community news service that serves over 60,000 listeners.
In a traditionally patriarchal society where women are often not taught to read or write, MMW’s journalists create targeted podcasts translated into over 30 local dialects to reach and inform listeners — often in the country’s most remote corners.
Recently, MMW’s Executive Director Florence Sesay and Senior Journalist Alinah Kallon traveled to New York and Colorado to attend the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and convene with a data journalism team of grad students at the University of Denver, respectively.
Sesay said the U.N. convening was particularly poignant because she and Kallon were able to feel solidarity with women around the world working through similar challenges and learn tools to implement in her work when she returns.
“We are learning from other countries in terms of response to sexual and gender-based violence,” Sesay said. “Listening to stories, it’s like sometimes when you work on women’s issues, we need that solidarity. Sometimes just listening to all the stories from women from across the globe gives you that energy. You keep going like you’re not alone in this fight.
“I want to see how I can learn and share best practices when I go back,” Sesay continued.
The MMW team has carved out a dedicated listener base by continually challenging norms.
In Sierra Leone — as well as most other states in the world — newsrooms have been historically controlled by men, and men typically hold positions of power. In rural communities, this often leads to a pervasive culture of violence against women, and a lack of accountability for those who commit crimes within the justice system.
“I think journalists, the media, we have very powerful women now — before, the newsroom was controlled by men,” Sesay said. “The space was controlled by men. For Media Matters for Women, we are in charge, and we are taking the lead in telling the stories of women — especially those who are in the last mile.”
To bridge that information gap — especially for women in remote, "last mile" communities — MMW’s journalists must gain the trust of — mostly male — community leaders. That work, Kallon says, has taken years of building trust to develop.
“Sierra Leone is a country where we have a high number of illiteracies; many women do not have the ability to read and write,” Kallon said. “The gap of gender inequality is huge. We ensure that we work with key traditional and religious leaders — these are key stakeholders at the community level — and these are influencers of change. If we want to create an impact, it is important to try and target these people who are in that position and can help us make a change.”
While MMW is women-run and primarily creates content for women, the NGO is not affiliated with any political party or ideology. Their mission is simply to inform women of their rights.
In Sierra Leone, when new laws are passed — such as the country’s recent Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act — word does not always travel to last-mile communities, which may or may not enforce new ordinances and statutes. This contributes to a continuance of old patriarchal roles in remote communities, despite efforts by the legislature to promote equality.
This, Sesay says, is the importance of MMW gaining the trust of local leaders.
“Traditional and religious leaders are well-respected figures in our communities, and they demand respect within these communities,” Sesay said. “So, it is easy for us to use them as a vehicle of change. Their buy-in makes a whole lot of difference. We win and they win as well.”
Kallon said that while many leaders were skeptical at first, they’ve begun to see the benefits of MMW programming — and female empowerment — within their own communities.
“Obviously, you have some resistance, because we are preaching equality, we are preaching women empowerment — men don’t want to hear messages like that,” Kallon said. “We back our podcast with what the law says, and if you have the backing of the law, they understand that it’s something they have to join hands and work with.
“In the beginning, they’d say ‘Oh, you want to give voices to our women, you want to challenge us, you don’t want our women to be submissive,’ because that is how it operates in rural communities; women are submissive, they answer to everything even though they are suffering inside,” Kallon continued. “Over the years (leaders) begin to understand, ‘This is not about us, it’s about the women, and when women are happy — have happy homes, happy families, their children are well taken care of,’ they begin to see that it’s for the good of everybody. And so, they join forces.”
In one instance, a powerful man in Bombali, Sierra Leone, raped a 9-year-old girl and — because of his status in the community — the legal system did not seriously prosecute the case, Kallon said.
“We’ve had so many issues where women are victimized, or sexually harassed, or young girls are being penetrated by influential men in society, then the (legal system) would want to play games with them; the police would lose the files,” Kallon said.
That’s where MMW’s activist bent comes in. The newsroom worked to alert advocates and residents to the situation, and within months, a public uproar had been kindled.
“What they did at the initial stage was bribe the family, but the girl’s mother was very determined to get justice for her daughter,” Kallon said. "So, what they did was the bank where he worked, instead of sacking him, they transferred him to another region. And then the civil society, all of us, we took up that matter — it was a whole journey, over a year after that.”
Finally, Kallon said, the man was brought to justice, thanks in large part to the media coverage and outrage from community members.
“The police said they lost the file, the justice system cannot charge any case, so we had to go back and forth, and because civil society were not quiet about it, the media were making a lot of noise about it, so they had to bring the man back and he had to face justice and now he’s in prison for a lifetime,” Kallon said.
The road has not been easy. MMW started with five listening centers each in three major population hubs, totally 15 listening centers in all. But when Sierra Leone was struck by the Ebola virus epidemic in 2014, the journalists had to figure out a different strategy.
Kallon and Sesay, along with their team, began reaching out to “ambassadors” in rural communities who they could electronically send podcasts to and then have the ambassadors distribute the podcast to folks quarantining in their homes.
That model proved to be effective for MMW, which was able to reach a larger listener base at a time when many Sierra Leonians would have otherwise gone without pressing public health information.
Many remote communities still rely on town criers to disseminate information, so MMW has partnered with them as well to distribute their podcasts. Kallon said these efforts — plus the occasional boat visit by an MMW journalist to remote villages — have given their newsroom the ability to reach truly off-the-grid locales.
“That was how we began getting into the interior regions because initially, we were just at the city centers,” Kallon said. “Over the years we progressed into getting more listenership because we’re not just stationed in one area… We have created that impact over the years; we go to last mile communities — sometimes you have to use a boat to cross over — but these are places we must go.”
With a general election coming up in June and tensions between rival political parties mounting, MMW has made it their mission to inform the public — particularly women — about issues, candidates and their voting rights, all in a nonviolent, nonpartisan fashion.
“We were very strategic in sending out nonviolent messages,” Kallon said. “We are for all of Sierra Leone, not a particular politician or party. We also encourage and support women during elections; we let people know it’s their right and responsibility to vote. But as journalists, we don’t want to be partisan. We don’t promote a political party.”
MMW is also faced with confronting one of the most persistent spreaders of misinformation — social media.
“Tension is really high among the two rival parties,” Kallon said. “There is a lot of fake news going on, so we have to find a way of going around that and sending the correct message because people use social media — especially WhatsApp — to send all kinds of messages.
“We listen to what’s happening on social media, especially on WhatsApp, and then we send the correct information out in our podcast,” Kallon continued. “If we are not on the apps, our listeners will be misled, so we have to take the lead in ensuring that people get the correct information that will prevent violence during the election because tensions are flaring around things like that, so we have to be on top of the situation, otherwise, it will be disastrous.”
Despite the issues they face in providing news to last-mile communities, Sesay and Kallon said that the inspiration they have provided to women across Sierra Leone makes their effort worth it.
“The young girls, they see us, and they want to become journalists now,” Kallon said. "We’ve become kind of an inspiration for these young girls who want to be journalists, advocates, all of it. It’s really triggering that kind of interest in them.”
“MMW has created a platform where women are building confidence, we can speak hope, we can share our stories to each other,” Sesay said. “We’ve really inspired and created that space for women to speak up. And definitely, I’m sure, most want to be like Auntie Alina.”
“We just keep telling them, ‘Just stay in school and you’ll be like me,’” Kallon replied.
Sesay said she hopes that the next decade of MMW will bring even more female empowerment and equity to Sierra Leone.
“MMW is 10 years in operation in Sierra Leone, and that means 10 years of resilience, working with communities and building a movement,” Sesay said. “So, by the next decade, we want to see strong women, stronger communities where we end violence against women, and have a very peaceful society.”
In the meantime, Sesay and Kallon will convene with a team of DU grad students assembled by Professor Renee Botta to help MMW with data collection and analysis, which will be used to create more tools to reach last-mile communities in the west African nation.