Combining caring with an international career

Personal, as well as organisational, change is important to delivering equality for women. In celebration of International Women's Day and our Think Women event on 6 March, communications consultant and campaigner Memuna Forna shares her story about what drives her professional and personal life across two continents.

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I trained as a journalist and initially worked freelance for a number of publications – amongst them, the Guardian, the Times, Marie Claire and the Voice. I’ve always had a powerful interest in two specific areas – women’s rights, and the private sector and working world.

Campaigning for workplace change

Gradually my journalism work led me to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, where I took a role in communications.From there I moved to Colman Getty – which was founded and run by the redoubtable Dotti Irving, who is a PR legend. Her client roster was unlike any other. She handled the Booker Prize and celebrity authors like Nigella Lawson and JK Rowling. The area of focus built on my strengths and interests and it was largely campaigning.We really succeeded in putting issues around stress in the workplace, family-friendly working and age diversity in the workplace at the forefront of workplace change. Around that time – Will Hutton, an extraordinary social and political commentator was invited to head the Work Foundation, and when I was head-hunted to join his team, I seized the opportunity with both hands.
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Fighting for the future

I have two children. My youngest developed chronic, drug-resistant epilepsy when she was two years old. Literally overnight, she went from being a happy little chatterbox to a child who needed round the clock care. I spent the next 14 years in and out of hospital, fighting for her future. Accepting that I wasn’t going to find a cure for her was probably the hardest decision that I’ve ever made. I also realised it was important for me to get back to work. There were two reasons for this. The most important is to secure her financial security, and I had unmet ambitions of my own.
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My father, who is from Sierra Leone, had been a highly regarded politician of great integrity and personal courage. Sierra Leone is a country which desperately needs the skills and commitment of its citizens, and contributing to my father’s legacy albeit in a non-political role, had always been something I aspired to. Reviving a career that I’d been out of for over 14 years was going to be made even harder because I needed a job flexible enough to accommodate her care and health needs. I was fortunate to be offered some consultancy work for a mining company in Sierra Leone which was building up its CSR profile. They were building schools and introducing agricultural schemes to increase employment opportunities in their area of operations. Women’s entrepreneurship was a major focus. The job played entirely to my strengths and interests. 

Combining caring with an international career 

Sierra Leone is not an easy environment to work in. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of human development. The integrity of its institutions has suffered from years of neglect. It can be confusing and upsetting in many ways.  Having links to the society and understanding its culture are not essential, but they are important. As a profession, communications within Sierra Leone is in its early stages. It’s more propaganda or publicity than anything else. For me the greenfield nature of the profession has been an immense opportunity and a great challenge. I bring an international level of professionalism, local knowledge and understanding, international and local contacts and an established interest in two prominent fields of work – the private sector and women’s rights.I’ve founded and run a magazine which focuses on the entrepreneurs and the business community in Sierra Leone. I’ve set up an annual series of investment forums which were attended by Government ministers and top business people from both the UK and Sierra Leone.During the Ebola outbreak I ran campaigns to revive the private sector, which was struggling with the resultant economic downturn, and after Ebola I worked on a huge post-Ebola recovery programme, where I was responsible for the communications. Presently I work with an organisation which campaigns against FGM and child marriage. I also work on a campaign to improve the ease of doing business in Sierra Leone. My work is varied and exciting, so are the people I meet. 

Personal, professional and economic growth

On the other hand, I have had to fight for the communications to be treated with the respect I think it deserves. I’m getting there. I lecture at the University of Sierra Leone, I contribute to the local media and I maintain an active social media presence, which is geared at highlighting issues and causes. In emerging markets like Sierra Leone, I think communications has an immense role to play in so many areas – democracy, health, women’s rights, education, employment, entrepreneurship to name just a few.The most difficult thing, for me personally, is that my work calls for me to travel. This means that I work away from my daughter. Leaving her, albeit in the care of her father, is an emotional wrench each time. Then too, I am judged harshly for working away from my children – both by people in the UK and in Sierra Leone. I’ve been called a heartless mother and a whore. Women, like men, have always had to travel for work. We do what we do for our families, for our personal and professional growth, for our self-respect. I am proud of the contribution that I make to my children's future, to Sierra Leone and to the development of a more collaborative form of communications in emerging Africa.” 

Think Women International Womens Day
Think Women lunch will be held on 6 March at the Institute of Directors, London as part of the celebrations for International Women’s Day. Hear from, and network with, inspiring women and men. Support women and girls to progress in international careers. 

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Similar Think Women events will be held in EMEA, APAC and the Americas later in the year and virtually. Contact us at to find out how you can be involved in your area.

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