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Published on 8 March 2023

I was shy. When in public I was guarded, especially if I do not know you. I would just sit down watching, I would not talk, it was so difficult.

- Hannah Finda Sesay, Vice President, Kailahun Women in Governance Network.

30-year-old Hannah Finda Sesay remembers how she used to be before she became involved in the Kailahun Women in Governance Network, which helps women to become active in local, regional and national politics and government. Now, Hannah is the vice president of the network, which is supported by Christian Aid’s local partner in Sierra Leone, SEND, with funding from Irish Aid.

Kailahun is in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province and most people lack access to good health care and schools. Like many rural areas in Sierra Leone, women in Kailahun also struggle to escape stereotypes, which expect them to take all the responsibility for household chores and the rearing of children. Women and girls are also often discouraged from continuing their education or taking up jobs traditionally done by men.

At the local level, culture and tradition have long played a role in determining women’s access to power. As well as encouraging women to stay at home, traditional beliefs, customs and local laws have for a long time strongly discouraged women from getting involved in local politics or community affairs.

The Kailahun Women in Governance Network has provided a range of support to nearly 9,000 women across Kailahun, including providing them with training in lobbying, public speaking and leadership skills to help build their confidence to successfully demand change and improvements in their local communities. The network also provided financial and practical support to women to campaign for the Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Act, a new law that was passed in January of this year, which guarantees that women hold at least 30% of elected and appointed positions, all the way from local council to parliamentary seats and cabinet posts.

As Hannah explains, the network is keen to see more women enter into politics. “We want to change the mentality of saying that women are not capable of decision-making or that women cannot be parliamentarians,” Hannah says.

“We tell the political parties that we need more women in parliament, we need more women in politics. We’d like a female to stand for president in this country,” she adds.

The network saw the potential in Hannah that she was unable to see in herself and encouraged her to put herself forward for promotion, first as secretary in her local area and later for the role of vice president at district level.

Image credits and information i
Hannah Finda Sesay stands outside the offices of Christian Aid’s local partner SEND in Kailahun. Credit: Christian Aid/Maria Collison
Woman standing in front of bushes in Sierra Leone

They saw me working hard and they told me to vie for the vice president position and I did. But then, I was afraid, there were so many people going into election. I am a young girl among them, and they are older than me. I thought maybe they will not vote for me. But my mentors told me that I should go for it. That you have to have faith.

- Hannah.

Hannah has served as vice president of the Kailahun Women in Governance Network since 2020, but the confidence instilled in her by her fellow network members to take on new challenges didn’t end there. Hannah originally failed her senior school exams and decided to drop out of school. But with encouragement from the network, Hannah returned to education and completed her exams in 2021.

“I am so happy, they have changed my life. They empowered me to go back to school. I sat my exams and I got my papers,” Hannah says.

As vice president, Hannah works on a range of issues in Kailahun including building awareness of violence against women and girls and challenging attitudes that hold women back from speaking out about the issues that matter to them most and from taking up decision making roles.

“In the past, men did not allow women to stand in front of a gathering or to make any decision,” Hannah says.

“They say women are not in the front they should always be in the kitchen. Those days have gone, we don't have to be in the kitchen, we are trying to be forward. Now we are going from one village to another, so that women should also come forward,” Hannah adds.

Hannah is also keen to impart her own experience to other women to help them be able to build up the confidence to speak out about the issues that matter to them most and aspire for leadership positions.

“I will tell them that maybe you are more capable than I am, that you also can be somebody. I will tell that person to tell themself that ‘I'm a woman, I can do it. I'm stronger than what you think’,” Hannah concludes.