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A rapid response to flooding in Sierra Leone

  • by David Burt
  • 06 Nov 19

Blog Post

Continual heavy rains in Freetown, Sierra Leone, triggered flooding in the country's capital damaging homes, washing away livestock and destroying livelihoods. The Start Fund was alerted to the crisis in early August and awarded rapid responding funding to Action Aid, Care International, Catholic Relief Services and Oxfam to help meet the needs of those affected.

As part of a Start Fund Field Assesment, myself from the Start Funds MEAL team and  Start Fund Programme Officer, Anne Noirhomme visited the project response. Learn more about the project response in our photo story generated from our time on the ground. 

On the ground during a flooding response in Sierra Leone

It's early September and I am sat in a second-floor schoolroom in the Bottom Oku community of Freetown, Sierra Leone. There is a blackboard with the legacy of a mathematics lesson on the wall, posters about the main food groups and I can see the Sierra Leone River in the distance through the gaps in the louvre.

Rain starts to fall outside, and I turn back to continue watching the representative from the Ministry of Health speak about hygiene to the assembled 80 women sat on the school benches.

As rain falls, babies cry, occupy laps and breastfeed, and toddlers wander around the floor exploring the colourful world of wax fabric print-covered legs around them.

“Hellllooooooo?” the representative shouts to regain attention.
“Hiiiii!” comes the choral-like answer from the assembled women.

The representative continues her talk and moves on to the reason for today’s hygiene sensitisation, the distribution of dignity kits provided by ActionAid, and gestures to a desk beside her with the assembled kit items.

Less than two weeks previously, Freetown had experienced torrential rain which caused flooding in low-lying areas. This rainfall exacerbated an existing crisis caused two weeks before that, on the 2nd August 2019, when extremely heavy rain, combined with high tides resulted in the substantial destruction of homes and livelihoods of some 5,000 people.

ActionAid, awarded by the Start Fund, decided to respond in this community, one of the poorest informal settlements in Freetown, due to the volume of destruction and implement a women-led humanitarian response, providing sensitisations from female members of the Ministries of Health and Social Welfare and essential items to those that had lost their belongings.


The dignity kits, so-called as they enhance the dignity and protection of women and girls,are ‘Ghana must go’ bags filled with disinfectant, petroleum jelly, wax cloth, sanitary pads, personal and laundry soap, deodorant, underwear, a towel, and a blanket, and are heaped in a neighbouring classroom.


Before long, the women are called by name, rise and depart one by one to collect their items.A quick stop to get a biscuit and a sweet drink for their children and after checking the list to verify their names,the women leave a signature or a thumb print, collect the bag and go on their way.

With military-like efficiency the assembled women are called until there are none left, at which point a pick-up truck arrives outside, bearing a new delivery of kits and the process begins again for the next group of women.

Led by Zynab Binta Senesie (pictured centre-right), the Emergencies Focal Person for ActionAid, this response aimed to assist women that had lost their livelihoods due to the flooding, which had serious implications with regard to both their independence and ability to claim rights.

As the rain continues, the last of the women walk towards their homes carrying their kits and ActionAid staff start packing up, in preparation for more activities the following day.

It is well established that women and girls are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises, whether caused by armed conflict or natural disaster.

Crises dramatically increase the number of women that support their families alone, meaning that they are less likely to earn an income, lack the protection normally afforded by two-parent households and can become excluded from decision-making processes within the community. In addition to being more susceptible to sexual and gender-based violence when social structures are eroded.

Yet, too often women and girls are only seen as victims of crisis and not contributing actors in their own communities. Research has shown that the entire community benefits when women are included in humanitarian action (UN Women 2015), which is why approaches such as ActionAid’s that place women at the heart of the intervention and help women to help each other create sustainable support networks that are so important in humanitarian response.

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  • by David Burt