Last week the Countess of Wessex visited Sierra Leone to see the progress made on tackling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) since the civil war, and to highlight the challenges remaining in tackling the root causes of SGBV and supporting survivors.
Her visit highlighted the many barriers women and girls still face in terms of safety, fair treatment and accessing opportunities in Sierra Leone, and ongoing efforts to promote the rights of women and girls across the country.
Her Royal Highness saw first-hand how UKaid is keeping girls safe and learning in school by reducing SGBV during a visit to Russell Technical School.
The Countess presented students with two UK-funded solar radios which will be used to teach vital life skills on topics including reproduction, family planning, and sexual and physical violence.
HRH heard how the UK is supporting all government approved secondary schools in Sierra Leone to improve tuition & learning, and to help students to understand, identify and report SGBV. So far this has supported over 255,000 girls who might otherwise have dropped out to remain in secondary school & keep safe.
The Countess also visited the Tombo Community Health Centre to see how UKaid investments in family planning are helping to empower girls and women to have greater choice and control over their bodies and lives, and to achieve their aspirations.
HRH met with health centre staff and heard how improving access to suitable reproductive health information saves lives. In the past year, the UK has helped to support over 120,000 adolescent women to access family planning services in Sierra Leone.
The Countess visited the Peace Museum and met Ms Binta Mansaray, Registrar of the Residual Court for Sierra Leone. Here she heard about efforts to secure justice for survivors of sexual violence during the civil war, including the role of the Special Court for Sierra Leone & the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
The Countess also joined various discussions with female representatives from the security sector, and the Women's Caucus in parliament, to discuss efforts to enhance the role of women in both the armed forces and police and in political office.
HRH heard how the UK government has funded the recruitment & training of 328 female officer cadets & specialists into the RSLAF, almost doubling the number of women serving in the armed forces in Sierra Leone.
The Countess' programme also included a roundtable meeting, hosted by the British High Commissioner, with civil society members who have been working for the last 20 years on addressing SGBV in Sierra Leone.
She learnt that many challenges remain, including attitudes that blame and silence survivors offering impunity to perpetrators. The group discussed the critical role of educating boys and girls from a young age to respect each other and foster healthy relationships into adulthood.
HRH called on the Vice President of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Dr Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh, to hear about the Government's current priorities for the country, including support to survivors and preventing future incidents of SGBV.
The Countess also met variously with the Minister of Gender, Ms Manti Tarawally, the Mayor of Freetown, Ms Yvonne Ali-Sawyerr, and other key figures in Sierra Leone working to further the rights of women and girls and enhance the representation of women in politics.
The Countess also visited the Aberdeen Women's Centre, meeting with hospital management, medical staff and social workers to hear about how they are supporting survivors of SGBV and the challenge of bringing justice to perpetrators, particularly as a result of the stigma which prevents some cases from being reported.
To conclude her visit to Sierra Leone, The Countess laid a wreath at King Tom Commonwealth Cemetery in recognition of those who served in the First and Second World Wars.