Sierra Leone and Brig. Gen. Kabia: A progressive voice for African military women
May 17, 2010
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Brig. Gen. Kestoria Kabia represents Sierra Leone this week at the African Land Forces Summit - not only with the country's delegation, but as its first female one-star.
"I had a vision. I knew I was there to succeed," Kabia said of her service.
Kabia was handpicked two years ago by Maj. Gen. Claude Alfred Nelson-Williams, Sierra Leone's Chief of Defense Staff and summit delegate. Nelson-Williams made it clear at his own promotion to major general that elevating women in the armed forces would be a priority.
According to Lt. Col. Leslie Bryant, defense attachAfA to Sierra Leone, women do not always have the same opportunities as men. "[Nelson-Williams'] decision to promote her to his staff is visionary and progressive." Bryant added that all other female general officers in Africa have been in medical services; previously the only military branches women were permitted to serve in. Kabia, as a staff officer and Sierra Leone's Military Officer of the Year in 2008, breaks the tradition.
"There is a place for women in the army," Kabia said at her historic promotion. She was originally one of only fourteen women allowed to serve, joining the military in 1978.
"My father was a hunter. He made me understand a gun was something for protection," she said, adding that she learned how to use a weapon early in life. Even now, the majority of military women in Africa get no combat or weapons training.
"If you bring in young women and treat them equally as the men, you will not get a difference," Kabia said. "I believe it is a culture, that the men do not feel comfortable alongside the women. If you have someone who has seen a lamp all their life and tell them there is a sun, they will not believe you because they only know the lamp!"
Kabia's career has spanned more than thirty years. Her current responsibilities include assignments, personnel, training, education, recruitment, and promotions; overseeing about 8,500 soldiers. Known as the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, or RSLAF, the organization has grown under the mentorship of the United Kingdom International Military Training Team.
About 300 women now serve in the RSLAF, or about three percent of the force. Kabia's goal is to increase that to 30 percent. Highly educated women already compete for places in the officer corps, and many others fought in the '90s without recognition. Kabia noted that after the civil war ended, men were enlisted into the new army while the women they fought next to were not.
"Sierra Leone is only ten years out of civil war," Bryant said. "[Nelson-Williams] is one of the most progressive leaders in Africa, and Kabia's promotion was his very first decision." Women also comprise 14% of Sierra Leone's parliament, including high-profile positions.
Kabia is undeterred, confident in her powers of persuasion.
"I will talk to them until they agree with me!" she said.