The COVID-19 pandemic hit Sierra Leone in March 2020, just like it did in Canada. The deadly disease posed a serious threat to women, who are often the primary caregiver in their home, looking after their husbands, children and other relatives.
The media drew from lessons learned during the Ebola crisis, which claimed the lives of many women and children because women were not educated on the disease’s impact on themselves and their families. Drawing from their experience, journalists quickly embarked on media sensitization campaigns — with some messages targeting women. This approach helped populations better protect themselves against the disease.
In a low-income country like Sierra Leone, a large percentage of women earn their money through informal labour like trading, domestic work and agriculture. Many could not bear the huge economic burden that came with the pandemic. Businesses were crippled, and some closed for good. The majority of women were not able to earn income during this period because of COVID-related restrictions imposed by the government to curb the spread of the disease. Women workers also had an increased risk of contracting the virus, given that they make up 70 per cent of the global health and social sector workforce. These women workers might in turn infect their relatives.
The economic, health and social stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic combined with lockdowns and continuous restrictions saw 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 and stay away from violent husbands who abused them.
There was also an increase in mental health challenges as families were not able to meet the needs of their members. It was very challenging for women. Most women support their husbands in taking care of the financial responsibilities in the home. Women who could not meet their family’s needs felt stressed and anxious because of increased care responsibilities.
The connection between the media, gender and COVID-19
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 thrust was to deliver a three-month information campaign to conceptualize and disseminate COVID-19 messages, counter misinformation, increase vaccine confidence, support demand (where vaccines were not available), and mainstream timely and gender-responsive programs at the national level to reach as many communities as possible.
Twenty community radio stations embarked on this campaign, providing daily broadcasts with support from Farm Radio International. As part of the project, WhatsApp discussions with subject-matter experts were held to help broadcasters understand the COVID-19 situation. As a result, they could tackle misinformation and myths and create messages to increase vaccine intake 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’s VACS campaign. She urged broadcasters to use their platform to educate men as well as women on COVID-19.
Yeama cited a recent survey conducted by her organization, IMdev, in partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the topic “How Demographic and Socio Economic Factors Influence Women’s Sources of COVID-19 Information in Sierra Leone.” One of the findings was that most women get secondhand information from their husbands or relatives. Therefore, as a gender expert, she implored broadcasters to communicate meaningfully as radio is still the main source of COVID-19 information, and it could be used to empower women with accurate and reliable information.
Gender expert Millicent Kargbo clearly stated that, though challenges to accessing the COVID-19 vaccine are not unique to women, women are the most vulnerable group. Key challenges include the 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 these services.
According to Millicent, this is where the media comes in: to combat myths and misinformation and mainstream gender into their messages. She added that media owners and managers should accept that gender plays a key role in how COVID-19 has affected people and institute measures to prioritize gender issues on their media platforms to provide vital information so that they will counter misinformation and myths.
Marie Bob Kandeh, the president of the Sierra Leone Market Women Association, described Farm Radio’s VACS campaign as “useful and timely.” She said that with support from institutions like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), FOCUS 1000, the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC) and UN Women, her association was actively involved in sensitization in about 40 markets across the country during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone.
According to Marie, 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 market women in the districts, especially during lockdowns. She appealed for respect for market women, noting that people often look down on them. Marie added that market women face challenges to get the COVID-19 vaccine as they are busy and must go to government hospitals or centres to get vaccinated.
During a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, media outlets like 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 and healthy and not carry undue burdens.
About the Project
The Life-saving Public Health and Vaccine Communication at Scale in sub-Saharan Africa, or VACS, project is funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada. Through the VACS project, Farm Radio International is working with radio stations across 16 countries and in 20 languages in sub-Saharan Africa to support COVID-19 prevention efforts, increase vaccine confidence and further gender equality.
About the Author
Mariama Sowe (née Bah) is a media trainer and development communications professional based in Sierra Leone. She worked for Farm Radio in 2020-2021 as a Project Officer for the Distance Learning in Crisis project and in 2022 as a Networking Officer for the VACS project. Mariama is an accomplished journalist who advocates for the promotion of human rights in the media and the protection of women journalists.