1325 PeaceWomen
RUBÉN GARCÍA CASTRO
Design creator
CHRlSTlANA THORPE
CHARLOTTE VAN DEN ABEELE
Text writer
"If you think education is expensive, imagine the cost of ignorance"
SIERRA LEONE, 1949

Doctor of Philosophy and Master of Education and Administration (Honoris Causa) at St. Clements University (British West Indies).  She was appointed Minister of Education in 1994.  In 1999 she founded the Sierra Leone Chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE). She has been the President of the Sierra Leone National Electoral Commission since 2005.  She has received numerous awards, the most outstanding being the award for Women’s Peace Maker in 2004, given by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Voices of Courage Award in 2006, given by the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Her neighbors called her “the teacher” in the poor Freetown suburb where Christiana, together with one of her sisters, was raised by her grandmother.  After coming home from school, Christiana never played in the street but gathered together at home with her friends where she would tell them everything she had been taught at school that day.  Christiana and her sister were the only two children in the neighbourhood priviledged enough to go to elementary school because very few other parents made it a priority to send their children to school.  Christiana’s grandmother was not just her caretaker, but also her mentor. Christina was witness to her grandmother’s unique capacity to resolve conflicts in the community where they lived, and this later inspired her decision to work as a peace educationalist. Her grandmother also encouraged Christina to receive a religious education. Upon finishing middle school, Christiana joined the Irish Sisters of the Order of St. Joseph of Cluny in Ferbane, Ireland, where she took her vows of chastity, obedience and poverty in 1972.

On returning to Sierra Leone, she was assigned to a middle school of her Order where she taught for 16 years and later became Head Mistress. After noticing that very few girls completed their education, she started to become aware of the oppression suffered by women and of the need for their emancipation.

Education is what makes the difference.  For this reason Christiana initiated actions of intervention and consultation with the aim of resolving differences within the community, and  she began teaching basic literacy classes for women. She worked with all of her heart and soul on her new task. However, the rules of her Sisters Order greatly restricted her progress, and she found herself lacking the necessary resources to fulfil her responsibilities.  After a long period of reflection, Christiana decided with difficulty to leave behind her religious life that she had always believed would be her life’s calling.  In 1991, a few months before making her final decision, Sierra Leone’s civil war began, and the country plunged into a state of terror and profound humanitarian crisis.  The rivalry between the Government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), mostly due to the control of the country’s diamond mines, was the driving force of the conflict.  The rebel troops used  terror tactics such as rape, torture and the abduction of children to turn them into soldiers or sex slaves. More than half the population, 4.5 million people, were forced to flee the country.
 
In this context, Christiana began her career as a peace advocate and educator.  In 1993 she entered the Ministry of Education and, a year later, was appointed Minister. Her work is focused on the fight against illiteracy and the corruption that exists in the education system. As a member of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE), in 1995 she founded the Sierra Leone chapter (FAWE-SL) which is dedicated solely to the education of children affected by the war.

In collaboration with UNICEF, Christiana worked to build the first schools in the refugee camps of Freetown. These schools serve to educate children who have fleed the countryside, and aside from an education, the children are guaranteed one daily meal. Christiana has always put special emphasis on the participation of local communities to use and encourage the skills of the refugees to help with the enrichment of their communities.

In 1997, a coup d’état forced Christiana, who was at that time Minister of Education, into exile in Guinea.  Here, she also collaborated together with FAWE to build schools in the refugee camps.  As a witness to the horrible trauma suffered by children during the conflict, Christiana worked to develop even more extensive programs, focused on transmitting a culture of peace to children brought up in a society of violence.

FAWE’s mission did not end there. After witness the success of the peace education programs for children, together with UNESCO they initiated a project for the teaching of traditional methods of conflict resolution and practice for mediation for women. In fact, as Christiana says, although “women are participants in conflict situations”, they are mostly “excluded from discussion of conflict resolution”.  The final project will consist of the awareness of the reconciliatory role of women in the family, the community and education.

During times of conflict, rape is used as a weapon of war.  Although the main mission of FAWE is education, it hopes to extend its actions to address this issue. As Christiana states“before we focus on education, we must first restore dignity to the lives of the women and girls abused during the war.” For this reason a program has been developed that offeres medical care, psychological treatment, literacy instruction and childcare (as many victims were left pregnant) to victims of the conflict. “Education is a means of alleviating trauma”, adds Christiana.

The civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2001. However, Christiana’s work continues.  The process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) still excludes women. As Christiana recognizes, “There is still a lot to do.”  Christina affirms that true peace will not be reached until poverty and corruption are eradicated.

The FAWE-SL has helped over 10,000 women and girls since its creation and Christiana continues to share the motto that “the education of women is equivalent to a country’s development”.  She likes to imagine the existence of a Permanent Centre for Peace based in Sierra Leone where it would be possible to learn about and work for peace; a place which would convey that the education of women is the path to peace.

Christiana’s current work goes beyond traditional education.  As of 2005, she is the Chief Electoral Commissioner of the Sierra Leone National Electoral Commission. She has worked to restructure the electoral process for the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2007, organizing and overseeing the voting process as well as raising awareness for this cause.