Rugiatu Neneh Turay is a local hero and activist in Sierra Leone working to end the abusive cultural practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and is now making a huge effort in curbing the spread of Ebola in Port Loko.
During the civil war in Sierra Leone, Turay fled the country in 1997. In a refugee camp in Guinea she met women who also opposed the brutal practice of FGM. The women bonded and together founded the human rights grassroots organization Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM). Their goal is to prevent abuse and violence against young girls that occurs in the name of culture. In 2003, Turay returned to Sierra Leone and began her educational work, teaching girls and women that this archaic and abusive practice must end. Despite numerous death threats, Turay works hard to persuade the Soweis, the women who do the cutting, to lay down their knives and stop FGM. AIM also works against other violations of women’s rights such as early and forced marriage and violence in marriage.
When Turay decided to become a teacher, she set herself the goal of achieving positive change in her hometown. As director of the AIM, she has been advocating for the rights of women and girls in the Port Loko district for over a decade now. The organization awards scholarships to school-age girls while promoting adult education programs for women in the area. “As much as we support women and girls, I realized that they would not be safe if we fail to empower their male counterparts,” Turay says. “This is why I also support young men to get technical skills so they can become self-reliant.”
With such a civic-minded outlook, it was no surprise that, when the Ebola outbreak hit her community, she decided to meet the crisis head on, offering education and advice as well as practical support to those affected by the disease.
Turay’s response was to train community social mobilizers who were then sent out to tackle the myths and misconceptions surrounding the virus. In addition, she provided resources to people affected by the disease, dispensing food and clothing to quarantined homes in the Port Loko district. She says her role as an activist is to “advocate for the rights of deprived and under-privileged members of society in order to achieve change.” Turay has also been working with traditional and local leaders, who have come under pressure to halt the practice of FGM during the Ebola outbreak.
Despite all this, Turay insists she is not looking for praise, but finds pleasure and gratification in the impact her work is making on the lives of ordinary people. “Any time I go out to support women and children, the smiles on their faces give me joy and satisfaction, and I am motivated by those smiles,” she says. “Even if you are not directly infected by the virus, you’ll be affected by the situation surrounding the virus.”