42 Women of Sierra Leone

Photographs by Lee Karen Stow
International Slavery Museum
4th March 2011 – 15th April 2012
Free Admission

Reviewed by Craig Woods

Hidden in a quiet corner, on the museum’s third floor, lies another testament to the cultural value of Liverpool’s first ever international photographic exhibition, Look 11. Lee Karen Stow’s 42 Women of Sierra Leone pays testament to the vast multiplicity of methods that women have used since the dawn of time to ensure the survival of humanity. When gangs of men were off ‘hunting’ in the forest for days on end, and often returning with little more than a sparrow, it was the ‘gathering’ of the women that supplied the vast majority of our calorific needs. Nevertheless, Stow also shows us - in no uncertain terms - how despite this being the case, women have continuously been subjected to detestable levels of discrimination and inequality, and perhaps few places better exemplify this today than Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is considered by Save the Children as one of the world’s worst places to be a child. Unfortunately this is not only due the widespread butchering, massacre, rape and forced recruitment of child soldiers during the country’s brutal civil war from 1991 to 2002. Other, more insidious, and less reported, factors continue to bring inestimable misery to the lives of the nation’s citizenry. For example, one eye-watering photo is of a young mother attempting to nurse her baby that is dying from typhoid, malaria, malnutrition and dehydration. This same woman had only recently lost another child in the floodwaters that had engulfed the downtown area where she attempts to live.

Another reason for Save the Children’s opinion is that so many children become orphans on account of one in eight women dying during childbirth (compared with 1 per 12,200 in the UK). This implies that if you have three siblings there is only a fifty per cent chance that your mother will be alive. Only in April of 2010 did the governments of Sierra Leone, the UK and the UN cooperate to establish a free health care for pregnant and breast feeding women. It is too early to tell how this has transpired in practice.

As the country’s youth grow older most will join the 70 per cent of the population somehow surviving on less than £1 per day. Nevertheless, the discrimination also becomes more gender-specific. Girls generally leave school earlier than boys because of extra fees, forced early marriages and pregnancy. Despite the Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act of 2007 prohibiting both forced marriages and marriage below the age of eighteen, it is still not uncommon to find girls as young as twelve pregnant in such circumstances. Similarly, the 2007 Domestic Violence Act is also considered to have been ineffective in attaining its purpose. Lastly, many young girls suffer debilitating infections, and even death, by being forced to have their clitoris scraped off with a blade.

However, the overall point of Stow’s exhibition is to graphically portray how woman miraculously manage to get by in such dire circumstances, and even take care of infant, elderly and crippled dependents, and usually without running water, electricity or formal employment. In doing so, 42 Women of Sierra Leone demonstrates very well ‘the beauty, spirit, hope and the value to a society of women not just in Sierra Leone, but women everywhere, who wake each morning with the belief that one day, life really will get better’. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the exhibition is so titled because 42 remains the average life expectancy of Sierra Leonean women.

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