“You playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightening about shrinking so others won’t feel insecure around you. As you let your own light shine, you indirectly give others permission to do the same.” – Marianne Williamson

It’s not everyday that you meet a young leader who is passionate about leading, learning  and giving back all at the same time. This is exactly the light and positive energy that pulled us towards Janet, a Sierra Leonean change agent.

Janet Hawa Koroma is a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow under the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) with a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) – Human Resource Management from Njala University, Bo campus. She holds a Bachelor of Law with Honors degree from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
As a Social Activist and a Young Leader, She has worked and volunteered with several rights based organizations and platforms such as:  ActionAid Sierra Leone (AASL), YMCA in Austin, Activista Sierra Leone, Pilot National Legal Aid (PNLA), Children’s Advocacy Forum (CAF), Human Rights Clinic, Dreams & Teams, Peer Mediator to name but a few. Janet has been promoting children’s rights, youth and women’s participation in politics and the right of women to own and access land in rural communities for over five years.

Her latest interest and passion is in Menstrual Hygiene where she manages an organisation called ‘Beauties with Brains’ . As a Menstrual Health Activist, She has been working to improve and create a safe and an enabling environment that upholds the rights and well-being of children particularly vulnerable girls in marginalized communities in Sierra Leone.

To add another perspective to our leading through changing times series, we thought it fit to have an e-interview with her where she shared deeply, watch out for golden nuggets of wisdom in this.

Tell us about that ‘ONE’ life changing experience and how that has influenced your professional life?

My participation in the YALI program provided a life time experience for me. It exposed my ignorance as to what I thought I knew versus what is important, this has led me into a world of taking action. I have discovered so many new perspectives on how to ignite change in my community.
Working as a social activist in a patriarchal, low income setting country like Sierra Leone poses a lot of challenges, especially for women who stand in solidarity with other women and girls. It makes you want to question your very existence every day. To a larger extent, in the beginning I mostly felt like I was alone and nobody understood me. It’s an uphill battle trying to prove yourself to everyone especially the opposite sex who mostly assess you from your physical appearance and not what you can offer professionally.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) for me was like a getaway that led me on a path of self discovery of finding my true calling. Getting connected to other 700 passionate and like-minded Sub- Sahara Africa leaders with similar experiences automatically boosted my self-confidence and sparked the passion in me to set more goals and acquire more skills and knowledge and build healthy networks in and out of Africa.

The highlights of my experience started when I made a decision to be open minded about learning and trying new things. I saw everyday as an opportunity to learn and contextualize experiences. I got to learn about the welcoming culture of acceptance. Which I believe is one of the secrets to organizational growth. Like someone once said “your brand is your culture and every human being deserves to be respected irrespective of who they are or their belief” It’s mostly challenging to know what people have to deal with personally on a daily basis. Deep inside they are yearning for peace of mind, a safe place that feels like home but most importantly a place where they can feel welcome and appreciated.
The human nature is dynamic and confusing especially when reacting to something new like responding positively to kind gestures! Interestingly, not everyone is used to being accepted or treated with respect and these processes often takes time to be trusted and reacted to. But practicing it on a daily basis makes it a habit and then a culture which others benefit from. This culture now helps people to be able to realize that they deserve to be treated better and it’s reflective not only on the impact it creates in the community but also it sustainability.
I feel that these lessons learnt can be used to create impact in our communities. We do not need to wait for help (grants and funding),  if only we are committed to helping everyone thrive at each stage of their lives,  with a unique welcoming nature. One that nurtures hope and determination by bringing together people of all abilities, ages, ethnicities, financial circumstances, genders, races, religion and sexual orientation.

My experience has taught me to be more inclusive when developing or implementing a project for equal and quality community representation. As this is how impact can be easily created when people (staff/employees) work together as a team instead of working in isolation irrespective of who they are or their beliefs. “Team work makes the Dream work” which is also reflective of the spirit of Ubuntu (I am because we are).

Furthermore, trying something new or working outside your comfort zone with an open mind is a venture that should be considered once in a blue moon. It gives a different perspective and approach on various ways a problem can be solved.

Lastly, I learnt that one key characteristic of a good leader is our ability to be open to feedback – vice verse . This is a leadership trait that can be trained, honed and perfected overtime for long term organizational success.

What do you think is the most important trait(s) for young leaders going through hard times?

I believe that honesty and integrity are the most valuable qualities of a leader. It is incredibly important for ourselves and those we lead because it is the gateway for trust and inspiration. Honesty and Integrity to me are traits we show with no exceptions. It’s a state of mind that is not situational.
I believe  that if as leaders we compromise our integrity in small situations with little consequences, then it becomes very easy to compromise on big situations. There should be no exceptions to Honesty and Integrity because it means : doing the right thing is the right to do i.e. being fair to yourself and others.

Tell us about your work and project around menstrual health hygiene: your milestones, the struggles and impact in Sierra Leone.

Beauties With Brain (BWB) is a female-led community based organization that operates and upholds its primary accountability to work with girls and for girls (Ages 10-19) particularly those mostly affected by unequal power relations. We seek to increase the capacity of girls to thrive and actualize their potentials through Education, Advocacy, Support & Empowerment (EASE) and enjoy exercising their fundamental human rights.
Girls on Period Campaign is a monthly period check that is geared towards smashing the stigmatization on menstruation and associated activities that are surrounded by silence, shame and social taboos that are further manifested in educational, social and health practices that restrict mobility, freedom and access to normal activities.
In many parts of Sierra Leone especially in rural and slum communities, most adolescent girls do not have access to sanitary products or know very little about the types and method of using them or are unable to afford such products due to high cost. So, they mostly rely on used cloth (pisis) which they wash and reuse. They also lack the awareness and preparedness on menstrual and personal hygiene practices because of inaccurate or incomplete knowledge about Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and its health implications like reproductive and urinary tract infections & anemia mostly caused due to ignorance of personal hygiene during menstruation. This has in many ways limited a lot of girls to fully actualize their potentials.
Beauties With Brain as an Organization is passionate and committed to support and equip girls living in the street and slum communities with personal and menstrual hygiene items particularly in a crisis like COVID-19 for their transition from girlhood to womanhood
Amidst the challenges, our Girls on Period Campaign’ work has been able to support over 1000 girls living on the streets and in rural & slum communities with menstrual and personal hygiene kits (sanitary pads, pants, bathing soap, shaving sticks, deodorants, pocket tissues, toothbrush & paste, nail cutters, combs etc).
Rather than the first period coming as a complete surprise or a negative experience, BWB has succeeded in empowering and educating girls about menstruation prior to attainment menarche. Girls are aware how to properly use and dispose sanitary pads. Most girls can now speak up when their rights are being violated and share their menstrual experiences publicly. Both boys and girls are aware of their sexuality, menstrual health and hygiene education.
Most of our challenges are centered around securing funds from Donors and partners and getting volunteers to support the Girls on Period Campaign. We have also been faced with challenges around actively engaging men and boys to support women in managing their menstruation and having a positive period experience.

What’s your best advice with regards to sexual and reproductive health?

Even though there are number of actions to safeguard reproductive health, one of the best advice I had is to offer age appropriate comprehensive sex education to ensure that girls and boys have the appropriate information on their sexuality and understanding their body parts. Because they need information not only about physiology and a better understanding of the norms that society has set on sexual behavior. They also need to acquire the skills necessary to develop healthy relationships and engage in responsible decision-making about sex, especially during adolescence when their emotional development accelerates.

Name African Women leaders that you look up to or have inspired you and why?

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– Is a stern, resilient and unapologetic reformist-feminist. I admire the fact she is poised to break down gender-based discriminatory barriers through her life experiences, the context and inspiration of her writing, her works and her resistance as reformist-feminist.

  • Joselyn Dumas – As a social activist and an entrepreneur, I am inspired by her passion, confidence and goal oriented traits for breaking the norm on one of societal professions(Lawyer) that are highly esteemed and and associated to riches. As a leader I believe in volunteering and giving back to society no matter how small. I am also inspired by her act of giving back to society especially where women and children are concerned. Her passion for philanthropy has led to the establishment of great movements and foundations in Ghana and create a lot of impact in the lives of Africans.

What are your thoughts on Mentorship as a tool for effective leadership?

I believe that mentoring is one of the most trusted methods. It’s a better way to develop leaders by granting them time, advice and insight from current great leaders. We all like to think of our journey as absolutely unique, which is true. We must not forget though ,that we all share similarities. Therefore sharing the experiences of our journey with someone else who has achieved your current goals, and is at your dream destination, is super enabling. I believe that mentoring as a tool of effective leadership enables mentees to better leaders. It also creates networking and sponsorship opportunities for mentees to grow so that they can be able to mentor others.

Written by: arianadiaries

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  • Harry Kallon

    Congratulations a d keep the good work.

  • David Koroma

    Amazing achievements ! The thirst to always stand tall will always grant you your piece. We are proud of you and may God grant you the equality you are so passionate about! Thumbs up!!

  • Pastor Daniel Thoronka

    Janet Hawa koroma you have done remarkably well at such a young age, a popular writer by the name John C. Maxwell says:
    “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” I want to encourage you to continue to do what you do best in helping your communities and the world at Large, I believe your step has shown us how far you’re willing to go. Congratulations for now and bright future Miss Janet……

  • Ibrahim Mbayoh

    Got you right ! Thank you so much for giving back to society

  • Osman Justine Conteh

    There is hope for Sierra Leone; our youth especially women can think and act positively. Paying back to society with the little we have gained can make a better society.
    Congratulations Hawa, Keep it up!

  • N'jainatu Sesay

    Good Job done and very educative as one who’s also willing to give back to society I would love to work with you.

  • Cecilia Lesho

    You are powerful! I can’t explain how proud I am that I met you. God continue blessing you Sister

  • Emelia Lawson

    Well done….Keep up the good work Janet

  • John Turay

    What an articulate and insightful read.
    I am so inspired by the beautiful stories and current activities of Janet.
    You don’t often get people with all her laurels, daring the untraveled paths she journeys on.
    Each one teach one, I see her going places.
    Keep up the good work Janet.

  • Janet Hawa Koroma

    Thank you everyone for your inspiring comments and thoughts. They are sincerely appreciated.