SDG16+ Champions of Change

The peace activist advancing gender equality in Sierra Leone


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.

Florella Hazeley holds a Masters in Gender Research and Documentation; a university Certificate and Diploma on Adult Education and Community Development, from the University of Sierra Leone. She has participated in programs on Responding to Conflicts, Advocacy on conflict management and peacebuilding, also on small arms and light weapons control. Before pioneering the establishment of the Sierra Leone Action Network on Small Arms (SLANSA) she was Advocacy Officer at the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone (CCSL), during the eleven years of rebel war. She was also the National General Secretary and later National President of the Young Women’s’ Christian Association (YWCA) of Sierra Leone.

We spoke with Florella Hazeley to learn more about her work and what drives her:

Gender equality is a cross-cutting issue for SDG16+, involving several targets across the areas of peace, justice, and inclusion. Among these targets is 5.2: “eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.” Can you explain the goal of your work and how it contributes to the reduction of violence against women and girls?

Women have always gotten the short end of all policies and peace agreements due to the male dominated nature of traditional arms control decision-making. It was necessary to create interventions to break the systems and structures that promote the agenda of violence against women and girls. To address the existing situation, women had to be made aware that there are better options to life. To that end, we implemented several information-sharing and awareness-raising programs to empower women by changing their mindset. As a result of the exchanges between Sierra Leone Action Network on Small Arms (SLANSA), women’s and community groups, the knowledge that it is possible to seek redress for violence slowly dawned on both men and women. Through this new awareness, women now understand and appreciate the need to take charge of their own security and minimize the occurrence of violence through better informed decision-making. Most women are no longer silent on violence as they now understand they are not alone. Issues like domestic violence and rape, which were traditionally borne in shame and silence, are now being reported, charged, and prosecuted in court. For women in Sierra Leone, knowing that they are not alone and will no longer be considered outcasts in society is a crucial step in reducing the occurrence of violence against them.

Particularly in the context of Sierra Leone, what do you think are the main issues preventing women from achieving gender equality? What are some of the policies and solutions that you advocate for gender equality?

In terms of obstacles, the short answer is culture and tradition. The existence of a patriarchal system and the conscious effort of men to keep women in the shadows has resulted in women’s lack of education and economic, social, and financial autonomy. This has created a scarcity of information, lack of any sign of symbolic protection, and a general fear to move into the limelight. At the same time, the intensified violence against women has created a deep and regressive effect on gender equality. It is also worth noting that there is an absence of women solidarity circles, which could instill some much-needed confidence in women. This lack of confidence could be the reason why women always go for the soft options in their patterns of engagements, such as peace instead of security or arms control.

There needs to be a two-pronged approach to policies and solutions: all existing legal policies and commitments must be operationalized by the government; and new policies need to grant women access to quality education and promote the visibility of women, in order to change the old patriarchal rules and agenda that undermine women’s confidence building. There needs to be concrete and sustained action on gender equality that goes beyond lip service. There also needs to be transparency by providing and disseminating policy documents in simple, understandable language to encourage women to read and participate in grassroots and middle level discussions and decision-making.

Why is it important to bring women to the table when it comes to small arms control?

Over time, it has become evident that positive change can only come about when the control of small arms is approached in a gender unified manner, with the positive inclusion and active participation of women. Women bring in additional roles, register and express specific needs, and identify gaps in the one-sided, male-dominated agenda. When women are included in the decision-making process, they take ownership and responsibility, and they can identify the underlying issues that need to be addressed to promote social and economic inclusion of women, including access to health and education. We need to empower and prepare them to take their rightful roles in small arms control. They say a woman’s world is as good as a man’s, I say it’s EVEN BETTER.

What are the main challenges that you have faced in your 20+ years as a gender equality activist and a peace advocate? Have those challenges shifted over time?

Advocacy, unlike most development programs, is an uphill action, because it involves changing the mindset of individuals, communities, governments, policymakers, and even ourselves. To raise awareness and sensitization, we need a foundation of trust on all sides and regular/ongoing self-assessment. To establish trust, it is paramount that community groups understand where they’re coming from. Governments and policy makers are hesitant in the beginning, so it is difficult to establish a partnership. On top of that, being a woman is like adding insult to injury. Gaining recognition, being listened to, and getting positive feedback/response is much harder. In Sierra Leone, having to get past gender stereotypes while contending with a post-war situation, coupled with the fear of being branded collaborators, was quite a challenge. In addition to that, funding has been and still remains an obstacle. It can stall programs and create fatigue and loss of interest in otherwise viable project activities. Fortunately, I can happily say that with several regional and international interventions — such as the then ECOWAS Moratorium on Small Arms and Light Weapons, the first UN Conference on Small Arms and Light Weapons, and the outcome UN Programme of Action, there has been a direct shift towards partnership in training and program implementation. However, we are still looking for spaces to squeeze in seats in the overcrowded, male dominated table to increase women’s representation.

Can you tell us about some of the successes that you and your organization (SLANSA) have had while advocating for gender-responsive policies in small arms control?

Through it all, we can proudly look at our gains and tap ourselves on the shoulder. We are recognized nationally by MDAs, parliamentarians, and other civil society organizations, and we are appreciated by law enforcement and other security apparatus. We work with regional and sub-regional institutions and have participated in a series of trainings as technical partners in Small Arms and Light Weapons control. SLANSA has a seat at the Advisory Committee of the Sierra Leone National Commission on Small Arms (SLeNSA). SLANSA lobbied the government, through the Parliament, to pass the legally binding ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, Their Ammunitions and Other Related Materials, and the setting up of the National Commission on Small Arms. We undertook a national survey on Armed Violence in Sierra Leone and another on Local Manufacturers, in partnership with Action On Armed Violence (AOAV). We succeeded in bringing local gunsmiths from underground and encouraged them and other civilian gun owners to register and license their guns. SLANSA is now a trusted, welcomed partner on collaborations across all sectors of national and global communities. As women at the helm of what was traditionally believed to be a man’s field of work, we have come a long way in engaging government, civil society and the private sector in effective advocacy.

What advice would you give to practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders seeking to create more peaceful, just, and inclusive societies for women?

Self-assessment is an important tool in advocacy work. While most policymakers work based on their own perception, it is necessary and crucial to be aware that it is only one side of the equation. We need to challenge our own assumptions and attitudes. A people-centered/community approach provides background information in advance to assist in designing strategies of work for positive change. Armchair designs do not result in positive change. An issue must be approached from all sides, and all affected parties need to come on board with their unique perspectives. Bring all to the table and give everybody a voice. Listen and learn.