When the BBC approached me to travel to Sierra Leone in West Africa to present the lifeline appeal for international women's rights charity Womankind Worldwide, I didn't hesitate to say yes.
Visiting Sierra Leone - a country best known for the atrocities and devastation caused by an 11-year civil war (it is estimated that 250,000 women were raped) - isn't probably high on most people's list of things to do. But from the close relationships I built with the women and families I stayed with in the Kibera slum in Kenya, I know just how resilient and entrepreneurial women can be against great adversity with just a little support.
I wanted to see for myself how women in Sierra Leone are transforming their lives and to tell their stories to others. So I packed my bags at the end of rainy January for a whirlwind trip to Sierra Leone with the BBC and Womankind.
The adventure began with a water taxi from the airport -on an island which was experiencing a power cut when we landed -to the capital Freetown. Freetown is a very busy city infamous for its traffic and it didn't disappoint as we left the city at snails pace early the next morning. Schools, businesses, government buildings and crowds soon gave way to a very rural, tropical landscape. We headed to the city of Bo and the surrounding villages where Womankind's partners - local women's rights organisations - are helping women every day. Womankind believes that local women led organisations are best at finding out what women want to change in their local communities and then helping them to do it. And by supporting these organisations to carry out their work, rather than setting up a Womankind office, the change is longer-term and rooted in the community.
The trip certainly wasn't a holiday. Very long drives (on unfinished roads), filming in 35c heat, scrambling over precarious wooden bridges, wading through water, trying to keep chickens and babies quiet during filming and at times contending with no electricity or water (oh the glamour of it all). But it was worth it - I met some of the most courageous, inspiring women who had turned their lives around. Women like Fanta who'd escaped a 12-year long violent marriage and was now finally safe with her two children and running a growing tailoring business to support them. Womankind's partner organisation had counselled her when she was rock bottom, told her about her rights and helped her claim them and live free from violence. She admitted that the confident, hopeful woman I saw before me was totally different from the scared, repressed, abused woman who'd come to ask for help only a couple of years ago.
And women like Isatu, whose life had been torn apart by the war. Her husband and sons were killed in front of her and she was taken hostage for three years, raped and witnessed horrific violence. She was ready to end her life before she was approached by one of Womankind's partners. They offered her counselling to come to terms with her experiences and skills training in handicrafts so she can earn a living. She now counsels other women and offers her story as hope.
I'll be honest, it wasn't easy listening to the stories of unbelievable violence and discrimination that the women I spoke to had faced. But I left feeling hopeful rather than disheartened because the women I met had joined with other women to change their lives for the better and were now helping others. And I could see how I was helping: by supporting Womankind I am standing alongside women like Fanta and Isatu across the world, as they speak out, create change and support others to do the same.
You can watch Womankind's BBC lifeline appeal on Sunday 16 February at 4:30pm on BBC 1 and Friday 21 February
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