Summary of a discussion in Sierra Leone: COVID-19, women, and the role of the media

| March 3, 2023

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The COVID-19 pandemic hit Sierra Leone in March 2020, as it did in many countries. The deadly disease posed a serious threat to women, who are often the primary caregivers in their home, looking after their husbands, children, and other relatives.

To deal with this crisis, the media in Sierra Leone drew on lessons learned during the Ebola crisis, which claimed the lives of many women and children because women were not yet aware of the disease’s impact on themselves and their families. Drawing from this experience, journalists quickly embarked on awareness campaigns—with some messages targeting women specifically. This approach helped people better protect themselves against COVID-19.

In a low-income country like Sierra Leone, a large percentage of women earn their money through informal work such as trading, domestic work, and agriculture. Many could not bear the huge economic burden that came with the pandemic. Businesses took on major losses, and some closed for good. The majority of women were not able to earn an income because of COVID-19 related restrictions to curb the spread of the disease. Women workers were at increased risk of contracting the virus, given that they make up 70 per cent of the global health and social sector workforce. The families of these women were at risk of infection as a result. 

The economic, health, and social stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with lockdowns and restrictions, led to a significant increase in the rate of gender-based violence. Some women had to flee their homes, sometimes leaving their children, in order to be safe from violent husbands.

There was also an increase in mental health challenges as families were unable to meet the needs of their members. This was very challenging for women, many of whom support their husbands in taking care of domestic financial responsibilities. Women who could not meet their family’s needs felt stressed and anxious because of increased caretaking responsibilities.

In July 2022, Sierra Leone joined Farm Radio International and 15 other sub-Saharan African countries in a vaccine confidence campaign, through the VACS project. The campaign was a life-saving public health measure funded by Global Affairs Canada. The main activity was a three-month information campaign to disseminate COVID-19 messages, counter misinformation, increase vaccine confidence, and support demand for vaccines (where vaccines were available). The aim of this campaign was to reach as many communities as possible with life-saving information.

Twenty community radio stations participated, doing daily broadcasts with support from Farm Radio International. As part of the project, WhatsApp discussions with subject-matter experts helped broadcasters understand the COVID-19 situation. As a result, broadcasters could tackle misinformation and create messages to increase vaccine uptake in their respective communities.

Yeama Thompson, the Managing Editor of the Sierra Leone News Agency (SLENA) and Executive Director of Initiatives for Media Development (IMdev), welcomed Farm Radio International’s VACS campaign. She urged broadcasters to use their platform to educate men and women on COVID-19.

Gender expert Millicent Kargbo stated that, though challenges to accessing COVID-19 vaccines are not unique to women, women are the most vulnerable group. Key challenges include myths and misconceptions that have been circulating on and offline, a lack of information about health facilities, and the large distances that must be travelled for many to access health services.

Mrs. Kargbo says that this is where the media comes in: to combat myths and misinformation and mainstream gender in their messages. She adds that media owners and managers should accept that gender plays a key role in how COVID-19 impacts people and implement measures to prioritize gender issues on their platforms in order to provide vital information and counter myths and misinformation.

Marie Bob Kandeh, the president of the Sierra Leone Market Women’s Association, described Farm Radio International’s VACS campaign as “useful and timely.” According to Mrs. Kandeh, the sensitization process was difficult because of a lack of water, women’s refusal to wash their hands in the market, and the difficulty of reaching women in rural areas, especially during lockdowns. She appealed for respect for women working in markers, noting that people often look down on them. She added that women in markets face challenges to get COVID-19 vaccines as they are busy and the travel to government hospitals to get vaccinated takes time away from their working hours.

During a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, radio stations are essential in helping listeners understand what other community members are experiencing—and ensuring they have the information they need to stay safe, healthy, and not carry undue burdens.