Image: Mile 91, Sierra Leone; ‘Looking to Yonibana’ by Jerusha Hackworth.
Trigger warning: This article discusses research into experiences that include sexual harassment.
The impetus for PhD research can come from many places. For certain students a PhD is born from a passion to assist change, for some it is to fill a gap in academic literature, and for others it is to address and document the need for social change. However, in the case of UNE PhD student, Jerusha Hackworth, it is a combination of all of these elements.
Jerusha recently completed and had her PhD approved. The research project is titled Women’s Empowerment and Education in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone. Jerusha’s PhD research addresses how and if university empowers women in Sierra Leone, and it all began when she was in the West African country six years ago.
“While I was working in Sierra Leone in 2015 and early 2016, I was somewhat dismayed by the treatment of women in educational settings and wondered why there was so little women’s empowerment research.”
“My research fields were empowerment, primary to university education (including in conflict and immediate post-conflict situations), and women’s rights amidst some patriarchal settings.”
“As I was interested in the healthcare system in Sierra Leone at the time (since I was there during part of the Ebola epidemic), I decided to look at researching women in education or healthcare settings. The latter did not interest potential supervisors at a few universities I looked at. Eventually I dropped that proposal. I spent a day writing a new proposal on women’s empowerment through education in Sierra Leone, and for reasons unknown to me, two potential supervisors at UNE liked it.”
Jerusha’s research was explored through surveys and semi-structured interviews that she performed in Sierra Leone. This gave her a chance to not only research first-hand information, but also achieve a close understanding of the experiences of the girls and women studying in Sierra Leone.
“I had to explore participants’ education from childhood through to their studies at the University of Makeni in Sierra Leone to gain information on how lifelong learning contributes to their values of education and education to their empowerment.”
“Institutes of learning make it incredibly difficult for Sierra Leonean girls and women to feel comfortable making complaints against or trying to escape from their harassers. Instead, the participants I interviewed discussed how they protected themselves when they refused unwanted advances (mostly from teaching staff). Dropping out of classes, while looking disempowering, gave them some physical security and enabled separation from harassers.”
Jerusha has found that there is a lot of research across the globe that indicates that education can increase women’s empowerment. However, there is little information on the link between education and empowerment for women in Sierra Leone, leading her to build some of her research from first-hand accounts and testimonials.
Exploring this field extensively means that Jerusha discovered many confronting examples of harassment that have occurred in educational contexts to Sierra Leonean women.
“I was not surprised to hear stories of sexual harassment at institutes of learning in Sierra Leone, but I was interested in finding out how agency can look vastly different for women (and girls as well) than here in Australia.”
With how confronting PhD study and this particular field of research can be, many may be thinking how tempting it would be to switch to a different study option or topic of research. When recounting what she feels her greatest achievement has been over the course of her study, Jerusha noted that it was: – “that I did not quit by week six (I was highly tempted to). If I had quit then, I probably would not have been able to meet some of the participants that I had.”
This was certainly worthwhile, not only for Jerusha whose PhD recently been approved, but also for the humanitarian benefits of having this knowledge recorded. Although the scholarship in this area was lacking, Jerusha found the insights that she gained during her research were not unexpected.
“Education gave participants some ability to speak in public, which they considered empowering, but their empowerment was shaped largely through their own decision-making during conflict, family poverty, market-trading, Ebola, and sexual harassment at educational institutes. It was also fighting for education which provided them with opportunities rather than education itself.”
A student who has reached a milestone, such as the end of PhD, often has a unique perspective on study that can culminate in words of guidance. Jerusha has this advice for students who might be looking to follow a similar path as her:
“Invest time in face-to-face interviews. COVID has made a mess of international research, particularly for Australian HDR students as the ability to leave (and re-enter the country) are some of the strictest in the world. The best part of my entire thesis was being in Sierra Leone and getting to know my participants inside and outside of the interviews. There was so much cultural knowledge I gained from meeting my participants outside of the interview settings. I was also able to live in the same town as them (and I had travelled to some of the places they lived before) which provided more insight into why they said and did things in specific ways. You cannot get that insight without being in the place your participants come from.”