Sierra Leone, a small country off the west coast of Africa, is often overlooked when it comes to its ongoing women’s rights crisis and how it has evolved over time, from the beginning of the country’s history to the present day. Historical, political, and socio-economic factors have all contributed to women’s marginalization in Sierra Leone, with the ongoing legacy of colonialism and the civil war being major impactors. As a result of colonial-era land-owning practices, patriarchal political systems, and the culture of sexual violence that is often encouraged during wartime, women in Sierra Leone have been negatively affected and continue to be seen as inferior members of society.
The Impacts of Colonization
Originally, Sierra Leone was colonized by Britain in 1787 as a territory to house formerly enslaved Creoles. Prior to colonization, women were valued for providing food and resources for the household, and age and gender were the biggest factors influencing politics, with many elderly women playing a large role in their communities. Women also had a role in taking care of the land; however, after British colonial authorities claimed the land for the empire and began selling pieces to private actors, women’s participation in land stewardship was compromised. And with British colonialism, came the introduction of Christianity. One of the major impacts of Christianity on women in Sierra Leone was the promotion and popularization of heteronormativity and monogamy, with an emphasis on submission.
In this sense, men came to the forefront of both politics (by mainly being the ones to negotiate with the British on treaties) and economics (by being in charge of the production of resources such as palm oil and rubber, as their economy became dependent on exporting goods). Even before colonization, however, men did hold most positions of political authority as a result of the customary chiefdom structure, a system of political organization rooted in a male-dominant social hierarchy with men controlling and serving as guardians of the land. Nevertheless, while the chiefdom structure is built on pre-colonial norms, the system was encouraged by British treaties, causing it to stick around.
Civil War and the Rise of Sexual Violence
The civil war in Sierra Leone first started in March of 1991 when the ongoing war in neighboring Liberia spilled over into the country. As a result, the Sierra Leonean army faced threats and attacks from the Liberian rebel group National Patriotic Front of Liberia and the Sierra Leonean rebel group Revolutionary United Front. Throughout the 11-year-long war, the country saw numerous coups to overthrow the government and a vast amount of human rights violations, such as rape, and mass murder. The war officially came to an end in January 2002, but by then many civilians had already begun to experience the lasting impacts of war.
In terms of participation in the war, there was a need for men and manpower, and as the role of the caretaker was regularly relegated to women and girls, they were the ones to prep and cook the food, and clean the camps where soldiers resided. In this environment, sexual violence against women became more common, with women and girls being deliberately targeted as sex slaves or routinely raped to terrorize the local population or reproduce. Consequently, sexual violence carried over post-conflict, as minimal resources were set aside to investigate or create preventative measures concerning crimes against women. Additionally, due to the increased poverty that came as another result of war, sex became commodified—leading to the exploitation of women in Sierra Leone.
The country’s turbulent history has resulted in Sierra Leonean society and family structure being heavily patrilineal, making women dependent on males for their survival.
Despite the fact that women make up 52% of the total national population today, they represent less than 20% of elected positions. This means that not only are the visibility and representation of women in Sierra Leone lower in comparison to men, but their voices often go unheard or are silenced. Women’s low involvement in politics can be attributed to both poverty and the inaccessibility of education, which was also influenced by colonization as the British pushed for a gendered education system in Sierra Leone, focusing on the education of boys instead of both boys and girls. Ultimately, the lack of political representation for women in Sierra Leone negatively affects the advancement of gender equality and allows a power imbalance among male-female constituents to persist.
Gender-Based Violence and Barriers to Health
A deeper dive into the status of women in Sierra Leone reveals a serious problem with gender inequality and sexual violence—including domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, and female genital mutilation (FGM), which is the practice of “removing parts or all of the external genitalia for non-medical reasons.” FGM persists because it is supported through the chiefdom government and other authority figures in Sierra Leone, being seen as a cultural practice that every woman must go through, in order to advance into womanhood. As a result, there are currently no laws against FGM. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of FGM in young girls and women had decreased from 98% to 86%. However, the pandemic has caused a resurgence of the dangerous practice citing a cause for concern.
Gender inequality for girls frequently presents itself in early marriages, teen pregnancies, and dangerous practices such as FGM. Gender-based violence is one of the most significant issues in a post-conflict Sierra Leonean society. This is due to the sexual violence women and girls faced during the civil war that spilled over into the post-conflict Sierra Leonean society, becoming commonplace among the female population in the present day.
Additionally, Sierra Leone has not only one of the highest female mortality rates in the world, with 1,165 of every 100,000 women dying, but it also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 890 women dying during childbirth for every 100,000. Abortion is also criminalized. What’s more, at the time of the Ebola virus outbreak from 2014-2016, 59% of the deceased were women. This had a negative impact on the community as women are the primary caregivers and medical professionals in Sierra Leonean society. Some other challenges women in the country face are a lack of economic independence and high rates of illiteracy.
Steps Taken to Change
Although women’s rights were increasingly denied due to colonialism and the civil war, post-conflict Sierra Leone did see a push for gender equality and women’s rights initiatives by national actors and grassroots organizations. For example, organizations such as the National Committee on Gender-Based Violence, which works to protect and respond to issues of gender-based violence across Sierra Leone, aided in expanding opportunities for women and girls to promote gender equality. This can be seen in laws such as the Domestic Violence Act (2007), in which domestic violence and sexual harassment were defined and condemned; Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act (2009), in which the age of 18 years old was set as the minimum age for marriage and consent of both parties is required; Child Rights Act (2007), which promoted the rights of children; and Sexual Offences Act (2012) which protects children, married women, and people with disabilities from sexual violence.
Furthermore, in response to inadequate access to healthcare, women in Sierra Leone have taken it upon themselves to host workshops for other women to teach one another how to take care of themselves. Nevertheless, despite these actions, gender inequality and the denial of women’s rights remain a significant problem in Sierra Leone. Many women continue to suffer from marginalization and face discrimination in education, employment, politics, and social justice.
Violence against women persists, and many cases go unreported, even with steps taken to change. The laws mentioned above do not take into account their Constitution—which ultimately is the biggest sector that needs to be changed. Through British colonization, men were inherently recognized on different and superior grounds than women, one being land ownership. Consequently, a clause in the Sierra Leonean Constitution allows discrimination against women in areas such as land ownership. So cases of women owning the land after a husband’s death—that is permitted under the Devolution of Estates Act (2007)—are few and far between because of the power imbalance that still exists between men and women in Sierra Leone.
Decolonization as a Path to Gender Equality
It is evident that the women’s rights crisis in Sierra Leone needs more work than solely creating new laws and support from international organizations. The problem is not restricted to the people of Sierra Leone; it is the entire system, starting with their government. Many of the issues women and girls face in Sierra Leone trace back to the negative impact colonization and the civil war have had on the country; it is ingrained in the system and society, with laws that reflect a patriarchal nature. In order for things to change, decolonization of the land and economic agency must be prioritized. But the importance of decolonization is not confined to Sierra Leone; many countries around the world, mainly ones outside of the Western world, continue to suffer the effects of colonization, which is reflected in their laws and social issues.