Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, which is punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment; however, rape was common and viewed more as a societal norm than a criminal problem. A new Sexual Offenses Act, establishing the age of consent at 18 and specifically prohibiting spousal rape, took effect in 2012. Cases of rape were greatly underreported, and indictments were rare, especially in rural areas. A reluctance to use the judicial system on the part of both victims and law enforcement, combined with women’s lack of income and economic independence, helped perpetuate violence against women and impunity for offenders. Despite the establishment of the Family Support Units (FSUs) and the passage of the Domestic Violence Act and the Devolution of Estates Act in 2007 and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act in 2009 (collectively referred to as the Gender Acts), reports of rapes, especially involving child victims, steadily increased.
Rape cases frequently were settled out of court or did not make it to trial because of inefficiencies and corruption in the judicial system. Most legal advisors assigned to prosecute rape cases had only three weeks’ training and could not compete against well-trained defense lawyers. Most perpetrators were known to their victims and included teachers, family friends, relatives, traditional leaders, and neighbors.
In September the government dismissed and arrested Mamoudu Tarrawali, the deputy minister for education, science and technology, after a 24-year-old female college student accused him of rape.
Medical and psychological services for rape victims were limited. Authorities historically required victims to obtain a medical report for the filing of charges, examinations, reports, and court appearances, and most government doctors charged 10,000 to 70,000 leones ($2.30 to $16.10), fees that were prohibitively expensive for most victims. The International Rescue Committee ran Rainbo centers in Freetown, Kenema, and Koidu to perform medical examinations, provide counseling for victims of sexual assault, and offer legal assistance for victims who wanted to prosecute their cases. These Rainbo centers were the only such centers in the country, and many victims had no access to medical attention or services. The Sexual Offenses Act provides that the victim of a sexual offense shall be entitled to free medical treatment and a free medical report.
Domestic violence is an offense under the 2007 Domestic Violence Act, punishable by a fine of up to five million leones ($1,160) and up to two years in prison. Nevertheless, violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Police were unlikely to intervene in domestic disputes except in cases involving serious injury or death. The SLP used mediation as its primary tool for handling domestic violence. Between January and September the FSUs reported 3,211 cases of domestic violence. In addition NGOs observed in many cases that women withdrew rape or other complaints of violence due to social stigma, fear of retaliation, or acceptance of payment in lieu of pressing charges. The lack of convictions resulted in a high degree of impunity for rape and other violence. Awareness of the law resulted in an increase in reported cases in urban areas; however, most human rights organizations noted domestic violence continued to be most prevalent and underreported in the northern provinces.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the majority of women felt that wife beating was justified for actions such as going out without telling a husband, neglecting their children, refusing sex, or burning food. Women suspected of marital infidelity often were subjected to physical abuse. Because husbands could claim monetary indemnities from their wives’ partners, beatings often continued until the women named several men, even if there were no such relationships. There were also reports that women suspected of infidelity were required to undergo animistic rituals to prove their innocence.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): See section 6, Children.
Sexual Harassment: The Sexual Offenses Act criminalizes sexual harassment. Under the act it is unlawful to make unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly follow or pursue another against their will, initiate repeated and unwanted communications with another, or engage in any other “menacing” behavior.
Reproductive Rights: Family planning services, including long-term and permanent treatments, such as intrauterine devices, tubal ligation, implants, and injectables, as well as oral contraceptives and male and female condoms, were available, but the Ministry of Health and Sanitation was unable to provide data on utilization. Women and men generally were free to decide responsibly the timing, number, and spacing of their children. NGOs reported that 70 percent of women of reproductive age participated in family-planning decisions, including contraception. Most couples who practiced family planning made independent decisions, while some reported that other influences and pressures, such as family and religion, were determinant factors in family-planning decisions. The contraception prevalence rate ranged from 8 to 20 percent, and of the women using family planning methods, 51 percent did not discuss it with their partners.
Although the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and NGOs made efforts to meet the demand for oral contraceptives, outreach teams rarely served rural women and families. Many parents refused contraceptives for their sexually active teenage children because of a misunderstanding that contraceptives would prevent pregnancy later in life.
An increasing share of women gave birth in hospitals and in “peripheral health units,” grassroots health posts located primarily in rural areas. Few hospitals offered full obstetric and postpartum services. Most women did not have access to transportation to make regular doctor’s visits or lived in locations with few services. Women also rarely had equal access to family finances, and male partners often did not see pre- and post-natal care as a priority.
According to a report released in May by Save the Children, there were 17 maternal deaths per 1,000 live births. The infant mortality rate was 185 per 1,000 children under five years of age. According to the most recent UN data from 2010, a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death was one in 23. WHO reported in 2010 that skilled health personnel attended 61 percent of births. With support from the international donor community, the government continued to implement the free healthcare initiative launched in 2010, and the number of women seeking prenatal care and giving birth in medical facilities increased. But the program continued to be plagued with problems delivering drugs and other supplies to rural areas.
Women were diagnosed more frequently than men with sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS, because they were tested as part of their obstetric care. Men were more likely to wait for testing until they exhibited physical symptoms.
Discrimination: The law gives either spouse the right to acquire property and stipulates that gifts, payments, or dowries upon marriage are nonrefundable, allowing women in unhappy marriages to divorce without being forced to return dowries.
The Devolution of Estates Act provides for intestate succession, including the transmission of property to the deceased’s spouse and/or children as well as to single persons who cohabited with the deceased for 10 or more years. Since the law defines “property” as mutually owned land and because land outside of Freetown is generally communal or family property, it was difficult to prove that a couple owned the land together and that the widow thus had a right to it.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs continued to implement the Sierra Leone National Gender Strategic Plan, a four-year (2010 to 2013) strategic framework drafted in conjunction with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and UN Women. Several “sensitization programs” were conducted around the country targeting traditional birth attendants (TBAs) and rural assemblies of women composing community wellness advocacy groups (CAGs) that in turn trained other women in more remote regions. The TBAs and CAGs focused on fighting sexual and gender-based violence, while also promoting reproductive health, reproductive rights, and broader human rights, and ensuring that women were aware of their rights under the Devolution of Estates Act and the Sexual Offenses Act.
Women faced widespread legal and societal discrimination, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance, which are guided by customary law in all areas except the capital. Formal laws apply in customary as well as formal courts, but customary judges had limited or no legal training and often were unaware of formal laws or could choose to ignore them. Chiefs sometimes colluded with men to evict women and children forcibly from their homes or subject them to arbitrary detention. In some cases chiefs imposed arbitrary and exorbitant fines, imprisoned women unlawfully in their homes or “chiefdom jails,” and expelled them from the community. Women’s rights and status under customary law varied significantly depending upon the ethnic group to which they belonged, but such rights and status were routinely inferior to that of men. Under customary law women’s status in society is equal to that of a minor. A woman was frequently perceived to be the property of her husband, to be inherited on his death with his other property. In rural areas polygyny was widespread; UNICEF estimated in 2007 that 43 percent of women were involved in polygynous unions. All women in the Western (Freetown) Area, which is governed by general law, had a statutory right to own property in their own names, but many women in the provinces, which are governed by customary laws that vary from chiefdom to chiefdom, did not.
In the Temne ethnic group, women could not become paramount chiefs, subordinate chiefs, or chiefdom authorities; however, in the Mende ethnic group, there were several female leaders. Every local council had at least one female representative.
Women did not have equal access to education, economic opportunities, health facilities, or social freedoms. In rural areas women performed much of the subsistence farming and had little opportunity for formal education. According to a 2008 government survey, 66 percent of women had never been to school, compared with 50 percent of men. Women also experienced discrimination in access to employment, and it was common for an employer to dismiss a woman if she became pregnant during her first year on the job. Further discrimination occurred in access to credit, equal pay for similar work, and the ownership and management of a business.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs has a mandate to protect the rights of women; however, most international and domestic NGOs complained that the ministry did not have the resources, infrastructure, and support of other ministries to handle effectively its assigned projects. The ministry routinely relied on the assistance of international organizations and NGOs to help combat women’s rights violations.
Women were active in civic and philanthropic organizations. Domestic NGOs such as 50/50, the Forum for African Women Educationalists, the Women’s Forum, and the All Political Parties Women’s Association raised awareness of gender inequality and other women’s issues, and they encouraged women to enter politics as candidates for mayoral positions and local councils.