Gender-based violence in Sierra Leone

Although gender-based violence (GBV) is a global problem, recent research in West Africa suggests that this problem becomes particularly acute in post-conflict countries. It is widely estimated that during Sierra Leone’s civil war from 1991 - 2002, up to 250,000 women and girls were victims of GBV. Rape was used systematically by all factions and, although peace was declared in 2002, the trauma of war has left scars which run through the fabric of households, families and communities.

In-depth case study

In the absence of formal law enforcement, particularly in rural regions, and in light of the persistence of patriarchy and dearth of resources for women’s organisations, this case study seeks to explore the value of engaging with men and boys in order address the prevalence of GBV in Sierra Leone. This is critical not only because gender violence affects both men and women, but because men’s participation in GBV-interventions enables them to actively change community perceptions and values regarding GBV.

Draft Literature ReviewMay 2014
MAGE-SL and IDS ‘experience sharing’ June 2014
MAGE-SL IDS workshop on addressing SGBVJune 2014
Database of collective actorsDecember 2014
In-depth interviews with key informantsJanuary 2015
Validation workshop with stakeholdersJanuary 2015
Analysis and writing of case studyJanuary-March 2015

Our work comprises:

  1. A stakeholder map, showing all the various actors in the Sierra Leonean landscape, whose interests either overlap with, intersect with,  or impede MAGE’s work. This was produced through two workshops - one in Freetown, with activists, NGOs, policy-makers etc.; and a second workshop in a regional town, Moyamba, where MAGE have previously worked. This enabled us to access stakeholders in rural communities, whose lives are not always very directly affected by decisions made in Freetown.
  2. A database of organisations in Sierra Leone, who are working with men and boys to address GBV. Information for each organisation includes: a link to their website; contact details; profile; when the organisation started; membership; organisational history; activities; programme areas; the role of men in the initiative; local links.
  3. An in-depth report, focusing on one aspect of MAGE’s work, and the challenges faced. The focus of this report was shaped by the kinds of issues / problems and questions raised through workshop discussions. The report is be based on literature review, workshop discussions, and  in-depth interviews.

Latest updates

A new IDS policy briefing summarises the key findings of a global research programme on effective organised activism against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). It highlights the importance of addressing the underlying structural causes of violence showing that men are becoming more visible as partners in tackling SGBV, holding themselves and others accountable for maintaining harmful gender norms that perpetuate violence.

A new report, published by IDS, focuses on gender and the emergence of a dynamic network of actors that reveal not only Sierra Leone's history of violence, but also its capacity for ‘rebuilding differently’ to foster resilience and create long-term social transformation.

17.06.15Towards safety and equality for women and girls

This comparative study of gender-based violence (GBV) in Kenya, Rwanda and Sierra Leone was led by Sonke Gender Justice. Themes include the need for a more holistic understanding of GBV, poverty and patriarchal beliefs and attitudes about male and female sexualities and their expectant gender roles.

Our partner

Our key partner in Sierra Leone is Men’s Association for Gender Equality-Sierra Leone (MAGE-SL) - a network of organisations that work with men towards the promotion of gender equality through advocacy, dialogue and raising awareness on gender policies and women’s rights. The association emphasises the importance of engaging with policy makers to influence the formation of policies themselves, and with communities in order to better ensure the implementation of these policies at a grassroots level.

Sierra Leone programme reports

‘They Call Me Warrior’: The Legacy of Conflict and the Struggle to End Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Sierra Leone. Mills, E., Nesbitt-Ahmed, Z., Diggins, J. and Mackieu, T.D.(2015)

This paper focuses on gender and the emergence of a dynamic network of actors that reveal not only Sierra Leone's history of violence, but also its capacity for ‘rebuilding differently’ to foster resilience and create long-term social transformation.

Evidence report

Engaging Men and Boys to End Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Sierra Leone: A Stakeholder Mapping Report, June 2014. Nesbitt-Ahmed, Z; Mills, E; Diggins, J (2015)

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the role of men and boys in addressing SGBV in the post-conflict setting of Sierra Leone, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and MAGE–SL held two stakeholder workshops and a series of interviews in June 2014 . This work is part of a larger research study on collective action and the role of men and boys in addressing SGBV in Sierra Leone. 

Evidence report

The Issue

Prevalent forms of GBV in post-conflict Sierra Leone include domestic violence, sexual assault, including rape of adults and minors, rape in marriage and school-related sexual abuse, as well as harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM). It is difficult to know how many cases of gender violence go unreported, but many in Sierra Leone agree the country faces a serious problem (McKay, 2004; Park, 2006; Shaw, 2007).

At a national level, a number of legislative and policy frameworks have been developed since the end of the conflict which establishes a supportive and conducive environment for addressing GBV, demonstrating a political will to reduce GBV. In 2007, the Sierra Leone Government adopted three Gender Acts - the Domestic Violence Act, the Devolution of Estates Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act. In 2012, new, more stringent, Sexual Offenses Act, was passed to help end the culture of impunity.

However, in a state as desperately under-resourced as Sierra Leone, still struggling with a war-ravaged infrastructure, there are serious limits to what legislation can achieve. Further, in terms of law enforcement to implement this legislation, research shows that household violence is rarely considered a matter for the police. In some rural regions, in particular where traditional patriarchal power structures remain strong, cases of GBV are often mediated by respected relatives and community elders: typically men (Denov and Maclure, 2006).

One important change as a result of the war is the increased and sustained activism of women advocating for peace democracy and good governance. During and after the war, women's organisations have responded to the disruption of social services and community-based structures by developing networks and alternative coping strategies to deal with problems such as food scarcity, sexual violence, and shortfalls in health and education provision. Recently, a number of organisations have also begun working with men and boys to become more active participants in efforts to end the culture of tolerance and impunity surrounding GBV in Sierra Leone. Strategies have included training programmes that incorporate sensitisation and awareness-raising about the importance of prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence that target both officials in the legal sector as well as authorities within the communities would help to ameliorate this problem. As well as strategies that incorporate consultations with community leaders across the country to identify how to address the issue would be useful. However, these organisations have very limited resources and capacity for sustaining the implementation of these projects in the long-term, making government- and donor-support critical to their ongoing activities

Further reading