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Network empowers young African women

 
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7:00 A.M. EDT June 15, 2011 | FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (UMNS)



Young United Methodist women in Sierra Leone are taking a more prominent role in the church’s women’s organization. UMNS web-only photos by Phileas Jusu.
Young United Methodist women in Sierra Leone are taking a more prominent role
in the church’s women’s organization. UMNS web-only photos by Phileas Jusu.

Young women of the Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference —19 years after forming the Young Women’s Network — are breaking through the traditional restrictions that kept them from active participation in the women’s organization.

“In Africa, we hold the view that children should not talk when elders are talking; they should not be engaged in conversation. The young women in our conference always had that at the back of their mind,” said Beatrice Fofanah, the conference's women’s coordinator, who has a long working experience with the group.

The Young Women’s Network provides a forum for women who do not feel free to interact with older women in the women’s organization because of traditional restrictions. The network enables the young women to feel more at ease to interact and make meaningful contributions within peer groups.

From a cultural standpoint, young African women are disadvantaged both by gender and age. Often, they seem intimidated in the presence of older women. The young women found their level of participation over controversial issues limited and they would at times rather abstain than speak their minds.

“In Africa ... that is one of the barriers we as United Methodist Women are trying to break,” Fofanah said.

Instilling confidence

The group formed in 1992 after it was discovered that young women were not participating fully in the Young Adults Ministry and when they graduated into the women’s organization.

“In the Young Adults Ministry they always lagged behind the young men when it came to decision-making. They would only vie for positions like assistant-secretaries, treasurers and the like, but you’d never see them vying for positions like president,” Fofanah said.

“We established what we called at the time ‘Female Awareness Program’ in 1992. Then we tried to work with our colleagues in Liberia and Nigeria and encouraged them to establish similar programs because the issues were identical in the sub-region,” recalled Smart Senesie, the Young Adults president at the time.



Young women work in a small group with an experienced facilitator during the 2010 Young Women’s Network Gathering in Yonibana, Sierra Leone.
Young women work in a small group with an experienced facilitator during the 2010 Young Women’s Network Gathering
in Yonibana, Sierra Leone.

The first West Africa Central Conference Female Awareness Gathering was in 1994 in Jalingo, Taraba State, Nigeria.

“Our colleagues needed to follow the examples of what Sierra Leone and Liberia were doing with the Female Awareness Program. We had more than 200 young women from Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone in attendance,” Senesie said. That meeting transformed the organization into what it is today: the Young Women’s Network.

The women’s organization over the years has worked to reassert the confidence of the young women while empowering them to face the challenges of the future. With support from the women’s organization, young adults and the bishop, the Young Women’s Network has become a training ground for empowerment, leadership development, motivation and spiritual growth.

Sylvanet Tawa, past president of the Young Women’s Network of the Western district, says the effort is working.

“It is a ground for building the young woman’s capacity into womanhood. We are groomed to become responsible women or adults,” Tawa said. “Our spiritual growth is also enhanced. During the seminars we learn about integrity, self-respect and how to behave ourselves whether in our church, community, home or place of work.”

Some of the young women who were shy and unwilling to contribute when they joined the network are now very active, taking prominent roles and serving in several capacities as role models in local and international organizations.

Tension between generations

Despite the successes in bridging the gap in the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, the generational gap does not seem to be going away yet in other constituent conferences in West Africa.

“From my visits to some West African countries, there has always been serious tension between the young women and the older folks,” Fofanah explains.

She said one reason the older generations are hesitant to work amicably with the younger women is the fear that the younger women might take over their leadership roles.

“I can remember in one country where I went on an assignment with a regional missionary, the young women had their convention and they invited us. We went and there was no older United Methodist woman around. We learned that there was tension between them,” she said.

There still is much to be done, Fofanah says. There are training programs but they are not as regular as the group wants because of travelling costs and other expenses. The last assembly of the West Africa Central Conference of Young Women’s Network was in Senegal in 2010.

Fofanah says she is looking forward to a time when the young and the old women could have a forum where “we can help our sister conferences who find it difficult to work with their young women to share experiences and tell them how we do it here and why it is a success story in Sierra Leone.”

*Jusu is a communicator for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone.

News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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