the news site for journalists covering development issues


'Now people will be more careful when they are brutalizing our girls and our women'

'Through the courts we have removed a bit of the stigma attached to these crimes, the women feel supported. If this project continues, it can be an example to other countries' - Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah, Consultant Master and Registrar of the Sierra Leone Judiciary. Photo: Niamh Griffin.It’s early on Saturday in Freetown, Sierra Leone but the courthouse is slowly waking up.

A truck rattles through the large gates, carrying prisoners linked to sexual assault cases. Here ‘Saturday Courts’ hear rape and assault cases in a programme partially funded by Ireland through the UN.

Almost 2,000 cases were recorded in the country’s three rape crisis centres during 2012 alone, so the courts serve a vital function in reassuring girls and women that justice can be done.

UN legal officer Rakel Larsen takes me through the quiet corridors. Funding covers weekend salaries but doesn’t stretch to electricity for the silent fans or even lights.

She says the courts, which were set up in 2011, are slowly changing attitudes:

‘It can be a challenge. The Saturday Courts provides a protective, victim-friendly environment, but it can be busy with family members. I think people didn’t come forward before. Now the women’s groups make a lot of noise. And there is a lot of funding, a lot of support.”

She adds: “We don’t have specific case-processing time statistics but we are working on data. You hear of cases waiting seven years to be heard, but gender-based-violence cases don’t wait. Rapes are also heard during the week”.

Sierra Leone a good fit for Ireland

Midwife Annie Mafinda, with toys in the counselling room at the Freetown 'Rainbo' rape crisis centre. Photo: Niamh Griffin.Sierra Leone is now one of Ireland’s partner countries under the Irish Aid development programme, a match less surprising than you might think as the two small coastal nations have much in common.

The West African country was riven by a decade of civil war funded by the sale of so-called ‘blood diamonds’. But almost 12 years on from that conflict, an air of optimism is tangible in Freetown’s muddy streets.

In the beachside capital, the Irish flag flies over a walled compound, down an earth-covered road. It’s dwarfed by the nearby British embassy but work done here is injecting a steady drip of progress behind the scenes in the areas of justice and food-security.

Dubliner Sinead Walsh supervises various programmes - mainly on nutrition  and gender issues - from the Irish Aid office, which was upgraded to Embassy status in January.

Ms Walsh works with the Sierra Leone government and in partnership with other NGOs.

She said: ‘The country after the war was destroyed. I was here in 2005 before I moved here in 2011, it’s remarkable the changes even since then.

‘Most of our programmes are about women, and rights. It’s an area that was neglected for a long time, even in Ireland. About 50% of girls by 18 here have either given birth or are pregnant, it’s a huge problem and something the government here is taking on.’

South Sudan in crisis

Sarah John walked hundreds of miles with her four children to reach the MSF camps on the South Sudanese border with Kenya. Photo: Wairimu Gitau, MSF.Sarah John walked hundreds of miles with her four children (pictured) to reach the Medicins Sans Frontier camps on the South Sudanese border with Kenya. Aged between two and seven, the children are among almost one million refugees fleeing conflict in the world’s newest nation.

Almost three years ago the world looked on as South Sudan celebrated independence, and looked to the future. But in December agreement between the main ethnic groups came to a violent end.

An uneasy alliance between the President and Vice-President broke in July when the VP was dismissed. Violence broke out in mid-December, and reports of armed soldiers on the streets signaled an end to peace. A ceasefire declared on January 23rd has not lessened the violence.

UNHCR estimated this month there are “over 739,000 people … internally displaced and a further 196,921 sheltering in neighbouring countries” because of the escalating conflict.

A senior MSF medic told an audience in Dublin earlier this month that the situation can now be described as a crisis.

Retired British surgeon Professor Paul McMaster worked in South Sudan for a month from Christmas, joining over 3,000 local and international staff on the ground.

‘It was just after midnight when they called me to see a young girl of about 12 who had collapsed. Sitting on the floor next to her, was her seven or eight year old brother.

‘She had walked three or four days from the North, without food or water, her father had stayed behind and they had been separated from their mother. Her only carer was her brother. It was Christmas morning,’ he said.

DRC: Analysts cautious about significance of M23 peace delcaration

Congolese refugees board a truck at Bunagana on the Uganda-DRC border. Over 800,000 may been displaced by conflict since it began March 2012. Government forces captured the M23 rebels main base in Bunagana on October 30, 2013. The sides declared an end to hostilities on December 12. Photo:  Samuel Okiror/IRIN, May 2012.The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the former rebel group known as the M23 Movement signed declarations on 12 December formalizing agreements to end hostilities in eastern DRC.

The declarations, together with a Final Communique on the Kampala Dialogue, were released by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) and the Southern African Development Community - which together sponsored almost a year of fitful peace talks in the Ugandan capital. The documents articulated each sides’ commitments on a range of issues, including M23’s renunciation of rebellion and transformation into a political party; the government’s limited offer of amnesty to combatants; the release of prisoners; the demobilization and reintegration of former rebels; national reconciliation and justice; and social security and economic reforms.

Kinshasa also committed itself to quickly moving ahead to facilitate the return of refugees, in line with tripartite agreements signed with neighbouring states, and to help internally displaced civilians, who number more than two million in eastern DRC, go back home.

Through his spokesman, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the declarations constituted a “positive step towards ending cycles of deadly conflicts that have caused immense suffering to the Congolese people.”

Yet analysts remain divided on whether political dialogue or military means is best to address the problem of armed rebellion in eastern DRC, even as focus now shifts to the northeastern Orientale Province, after relative success in North Kivu. Some argue for a mix of both: “neutralizing” armed groups while engaging in security sector and institutional reforms.

Irish Aid programme cuts Malaria death rate in Malawi by 95%

Launch of Reducing Hunger, Strengthening Resilience: Irish Aid Annual Report 2012, 12 September 2013. Photo: Irish Aid.Last month, World and Media reported that an Irish Aid supported hospital partnership was associated with an 86 per cent reduction in maternal mortality and a 50 percent drop in stillbirths and early neonatal deaths in the Omdurman Maternity Hospital in Sudan. Today (September 12), the Government’s programme for overseas development, Irish Aid, published its annual report with some even more striking evidence for its effectiveness:

  • Ethiopia: Almost 7 million people protected from hunger in 2012 through an Irish Aid supported programme, which provides cash or food in exchange for work to improve agriculture and protect the environment.
  • Malawi: In Malawi, following the distribution of 263,000 bednets, suspected deaths from malaria among children under 5 have reduced by 95% since 2010.
  • Mozambique: 71% of girls aged 6 in Mozambique are now enrolled in school. This is up from 58% in 2005.
  • Tanzania: Since 2001, the area of agricultural land under irrigation has almost doubled (up from 200,000 hectares to 399,000 hectares), contributing to reduced hunger and increased economic opportunity for families.
  • Vietnam: Two-thirds reduction in rates of mothers dying in childbirth between 1990 and 2009.
  • Zambia: 400,000 people have access to clean and safe drinking water and sanitation facilities thanks to Irish Aid’s programme in Northern Province.
  • Ethiopia: The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased from 56% in 2000 to 39% in 2012.

Northern Namibia: where there used to be grass, there is now little more than dust

Riondjovi Mupia and her three children moved to an informal settlement on the outskirts of Opuwo in north-western Namibia four months ago after the drought dried up the vegetable patch she relied on for an income. Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN.[OPUWO] The arid hills of Namibia’s northwestern Kunene Region make for a harsh environment at the best of times. With agriculture limited by the region’s dry, sandy soil, most of the local population rely on livestock farming, leading a semi-nomadic existence dictated by the search for fresh pasture for their cattle and goats. But following two years of failed rains, pasture is almost non-existent; where there used to be grass, there is now little more than dust.

“The drought is killing everything,” said Teemuime Mbendura, who lives in a Himba homestead, about one hour’s drive north of the regional capital, Opuwo. 

The Ovahimba have largely managed to maintain their traditional way of life in northern Namibia, including the women’s practice of applying a mixture of animal fat and ochre to their skin and hair to achieve a distinctive reddish hue. But increasingly erratic rains - which are expected to grow even more variable in the future, according to climate change predictions - are threatening the sustainability of their pastoral existence. 

Mbendura does not know her age - “Maybe a thousand years,” she says - but she is certain this is the first time in her life that the rains have failed for two consecutive years. “The old men used to consult the ancestors to ask for rain, but now there are no old men left at the homestead, and the younger ones don’t do this,” she told IRIN. 

The younger men are noticeably absent from the homestead, which consists of huts encircled by a makeshift fence. Most have taken their cattle to distant patches of pasture in an effort to keep them alive.

Opinion: A little aid can provide a massive return

Participants from a Community Conversation group in Mukuru during a resource mapping process, the process helps the community identify how best they can address their issue. Photo: Concern Worldwide.In these times of financial turmoil, it is natural to question government spending and examine how our limited resources can be best put to use. Overseas aid budgets have come under intense scrutiny from citizens of countries the world over, with some people preferring that we cease all aid in favor of spending on domestic projects during this cash-strapped and difficult period – the “charity begins at home” outlook.

Many others recognize the importance of aid to the world’s poorest, whether for reasons of social justice, compassion, or diplomacy. Amidst all the voices and opinions, I have noted the growing unease and, at times, cynicism people have about aid and its efficacy. “We give and give, but nothing ever changes” is a phrase I have often heard.

Implicit in this unease is the notion that the world’s poor are simply recipients, simply needy, waiting to be led out of poverty. What we do not see represented as often is the tireless commitment and dogged determination of communities and of average community members to improve their lives, to increase their opportunities, their access to jobs, health care, and education.

On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I was fortunate to see the very real and powerful will of local people to solve problems and escape poverty. The Mukuru slum in the eastern part of Nairobi is home to over 100,000 people. Off several roads, row after row of corrugated iron and wooden shacks are crisscrossed with winding dirt lanes no more than a few feet wide. My colleagues from Concern Worldwide and our local partner organization, the Mukuru Slum Development Project, and I walked through the maze of paths, hopping over open, murky trenches filled with waste water and sewage until we reached a shed about the size of a classroom.

We were going to meet a group of residents from the Hazina and Kisii neighborhoods of Mukuru who had gathered to form the Haki Community Conversation. Inside the muggy, dimly-lit room squeezed 40 men and women, old and young, many with young children sitting on their laps. Everyone was meeting for one reason: to address local issues with local ingenuity. Used in many countries and contexts, Community Conversations are just that–meetings where people can talk about, and work to solve, the immediate challenges in their community.

The meeting started with announcements from various attendees, addressing issues that had come to light since the last meeting, such as fire safety and domestic violence. The floor then opened for anyone to raise topics that were of interest to them. One woman stood, swaddling a child in a brightly colored shawl, and asked where she could access maternity services. Thankfully, the Haki Community Conversation already has a working solution in place. It identifies pregnant women and informs them of where and how to get maternity treatment vouchers, enabling them to access free medical care during their pregnancy.

'We have to stay, to die. We remain there, we knew they are coming.'

Road to South Sudan outside Lacor Hospital, Gulu in Northern Uganda, where Fr Peter Okello is now based. He dreams of visiting newly independent South Sudan but struggles to forget his experience of Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army. Photo: Niamh Griffin.Many Irish families have a missionary relative, a visitor who shivers by the fire once a year or less. Ruán Magan spoke to some of these extraordinary ‘Lifers’ for RTÉ last night. However, they are not alone in having sacrificied a family life and put their own lives at risk to bring hope to others.

Travelling in Uganda last year I met an elderly Sudanese missionary who dreams of sniffing the air in newly independent South Sudan. And wishes he could leave his memories of warlord Joseph Kony behind.

Now 83, Fr Peter Okello spends his days on his veranda at the missionary-run Lacor Hospital in Gulu. Still tall and broad-shouldered, he walks slowly but with so many visitors, he hardly needs to move. As we talk mechanics, nurses and other priests drop by to talk or just sit nearby.

In 2008 Fr Peter was one of three missionaries at Duru Mission in the Congo. The Lord’s Resistance Army under Kony was fading then*, but still strong in pockets along the borderlands.

‘The last mission I left, we were forced to leave. We escaped death, we were at their mercy. They took everything away, the rebels, the people of Kony,’ he says.

“The people around the mission did not run away, so according to our rules, if even one person does not run away, then we have to stay, to die. We remain there, we knew they are coming.”

Get the World News and Media Diary


Gender-based violence in Sierra Leone

Freetown Rainbo Centre staffRainbo Centre signWorking to prevent violence
Midwife Annie MafindaSafiatu Jalloh, counselorMidwife Many Sowa
Rakel LarsonChief Officer Balogun DixonMadam Julia Sarkodie Mensah
Police Family Support UnitCourtroom posterJoseph Rahall
http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/486867Midwives_counsellors_security_guards_staff_Freetown_Rainbo_Centre_Princeses_Christian_Maternity_Hospital_600x450.jpg

Freetown Rainbo Centre staff

Staff, including midwives, counsellors and security guards, at the Freetown Rainbo Centre, in the Princeses Christian Maternity Hospital, which deals with rape crises. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/827434Rainbo_Centre_sign_Sierra_Leone_600_380.jpg

Rainbo Centre sign

Rainbo Centre sign which hangs in all three centres in Sierra Leone. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/206417IRC_run_group_in_Kenema_Sierra_Leone_working_to_change_male_attitudes_to_violence_600_450.jpg

Working to prevent violence

Six members of a men's group in Kenema, Sierra Leone run by IRC. They are working to change men's attitudes and stop violence before it starts. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/908993Midwife_Annie_Mafinda_with_toys_in_the_Freetown_Rainbo_Centre_counselling_room_600_450.jpg

Midwife Annie Mafinda

Midwife Annie Mafinda, with toys in the counselling room at the Freetown Rainbo Centre. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/242101Safiatu_Jalloh_counselor_with_the_Rainbo_Centre_in_Kenema_600_450.jpg

Safiatu Jalloh, counselor

Safiatu Jalloh, counselor with the Rainbo Centre in Kenema. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/601712Many_Sowa_midwife_at_the_Kenema_Rainbo_Centre_Sierra_Leone_600_450.jpg

Midwife Many Sowa

Many Sowa, midwife at the Kenema Rainbo Centre, Sierra Leone. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/866528Rakel_Larson_UN_Displaced_Persons_representative_working_with_Irish_Aid_on_the_Saturday_Courts_project_600x450.jpg

Rakel Larson

Rakel Larson, United Nations Displaced Persons representative, working with Irish Aid on the Saturday Courts project. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/893836Balogun_Dixon_Chief_Officer_Pademba_Road_Prison_at_the_Freetown_Courthouse_600_450.jpg

Chief Officer Balogun Dixon

Balogun Dixon, Chief Officer Pademba Road Prison, at the Freetown Courthouse. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/827415Madam_Julia_Sarkodie_Mensah_Consultant_Master_and_Registrar_of_the_Sierra_Leone_Judiciary_338_450.jpg

Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah

Madam Julia Sarkodie Mensah, Consultant Master and Registrar of the Sierra Leone Judiciary. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/602051The_Family_Support_Unit_in_the_Kenema_Police_Force_600_450.jpg

Police Family Support Unit

The Family Support Unit in the Kenema Police Force, pictured outside their station. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/226639Poster_on_GBV_in_the_Freetown_Courthouse_345_450.jpg

Courtroom poster

Poster on the walls of a courtroom in the Freetown Courthouse building offering socio-legal support for victims of gender-based violence. Photo: Niamh Griffin.

http://worldandmedia.com/components/com_gk3_photoslide/thumbs_big/238581Joseph_Rahall_Executive_Director_Green_Scenery_at_the_offices_in_Freetown_Sierra_Leone_600_450.jpg

Joseph Rahall

Joseph Rahall, Executive Director of eco-NGO 'Green Scenery', at their offices in Freetown, Sierra Leone.