Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, which is punishable by between five and 15 years’ imprisonment. Rape was common and viewed more as a societal norm than a criminal problem. The law specifically prohibits spousal rape. Cases of rape continued to be greatly underreported, and indictments were rare, especially in rural areas. A reluctance to use the judicial system by both victims and law enforcement officials, 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 Unit (FSU) of the SLP and the existence of applicable legislation, reports of rapes and sexual penetration, especially involving child victims, steadily increased. FSU data of 2015, the most recent available, reported 2,398 cases of rape and sexual penetration. The Western (Freetown) Area and Eastern Province recorded the highest numbers of cases. Local and international NGOs, such as the Defense for Children International, reported a lack of public willingness to report instances of sexual abuse.
Don Bosco Fambul and the Campaign for Good Governance operated a hotline and psychosocial services for victims of sexual violence. Defense for Children International reported that between January and June, sexual penetration/abuse accounted for more than 60 percent of abuse cases reported at police stations. Girls were the main victims of sexual exploitation. A majority of these victims were between the ages of 11 and 14, and an estimated 20 percent were between six and 10 years of age.
Civil society organizations, such as Legal Aid and Timap for Justice, provided free legal services for victims of gender-based and domestic violence. Inefficiencies and corruption in the judicial system, however, resulted in many case settled out of court or without going to trial. Most perpetrators, including teachers, family friends, relatives, traditional leaders, and neighbors, were known to their victims.
Medical and psychological services for rape victims were limited. Police often required victims to obtain a medical report for the filing of charges, examinations, reports, and court appearances, and most government doctors charged fees that were prohibitively expensive for most victims. The International Rescue Committee Rainbo centers in Freetown, Kenema, and Koidu helped 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 law provides that the victim of a sexual offense shall be entitled to free medical treatment and a free medical report, but in reality many victims had to pay for medical services.
Domestic violence is an offense, punishable by a fine not exceeding five million leones ($685) and two years’ imprisonment. Nevertheless, violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Between January and July, the FSU reported 698 cases of sexual violence against women, out of 1,720 cases of domestic violence, a figure thought to understate greatly the true prevalence of the abuse. Domestic violence goes largely unreported due to victims’ fear of social stigma and retaliation.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women and girls. UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data from 2014, the most recent available, reported that nine of 10 women and girls had undergone the procedure. As a result of the statutory lapse of the Ebola state of emergency measures on August 7, suspension of activities, including FGM/C, by the “bondo” and other secret societies was no longer in force. Beginning in January there were again reports FGM/C was being perpetrated. In July the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding with the Soweis and other traditional leaders who practice FGM/C, whereby the traditional leaders committed not to initiate minors under 18 years of age. The FSU reported that of six recorded cases of FGM/C during initiation of girls under 18 years of age between January and August, four were investigated, but no charges were filed. A renewed call to end the practice began following international attention to the death of 19-year-old Fatmata Turay after she underwent FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment, but the law was not always effectively enforced. It is unlawful to make unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly follow or pursue others against their will, initiate repeated and unwanted communications with others, or engage in any other “menacing” behavior. Sexual harassment is punishable by a fine not exceeding leones 14.3 million ($1,960) or imprisonment not exceeding three years. Through August, the FSU reported 698 cases of sexual harassment offenses. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment, but it was thought to be widespread and greatly underreported.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children free from discrimination, coercion, or violence, but they often lacked the information and means to do so. Many parents refused to allow their sexually active teenage children to have contraceptives due to traditional beliefs that contraceptives cause sterility. According to the World Health Organization, the mortality rate was approximately 1,360 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, with only 61 percent of births attended by skilled health professionals, and women had a lifetime maternal mortality risk of one in 17. The UN Population Fund reported that 38 percent of women aged 20-24 had given birth before the age of 18. Factors influencing maternal mortality included lack of prenatal care, inadequate nutrition of mothers, inadequate medical services, and the high rate of adolescent pregnancy. With support from the international donor community, the government continued to implement the free health-care initiative launched in 2010, and the number of women and girls seeking prenatal care and giving birth in medical facilities increased. Nonetheless, the program continued to be plagued by corruption and difficulties in delivering drugs and other supplies to rural areas. Few hospitals offered full obstetric and postpartum services. Most women did not have access to transportation to undertake 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 postnatal care as priorities.
The UN Population Division estimated that only 15 percent of girls and women aged 15-49 used a modern method of contraception in 2015. Most couples who practiced family planning made independent decisions, while some reported other influences and pressures, such as family and religion, were determinant factors in family-planning decisions. Family-planning services, including long-term and permanent methods (intrauterine devices, tubal ligation, contraceptive implants, and injections), oral contraceptives, and male and female condoms, were available. Although the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and NGOs made efforts to meet the demand for family planning services, outreach teams rarely served rural women and families.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance laws but does not provide the same legal status for women and men in relation to religion and personal status. Women continued to experience discriminatory practices. Their rights and positions are largely contingent on customary law and the ethnic group to which they belong. According to the Sierra Leone Citizenship Act 1973, as amended in 2006, a Sierra Leonean mother can only confer nationality on her child born abroad if the child would otherwise be stateless. Sierra Leonean fathers confer their nationality on children born abroad at birth.
Although the Employer and Employee Act identifies “discrimination as any distinction, exclusion or preference, including based on sex, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation,” the Ministry of Labor and Social Security reported that the law mandates equal remuneration for equal work without discrimination based on gender.
The law provides that either spouse has 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. Since the law defines “property” as mutually owned land and because land outside of Freetown is generally communal or family property, however, it was difficult to prove a couple owned the land together and that a widow thus had a right to it.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs reported that women faced widespread 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 chose 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 those 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. All women in the Western (Freetown) Area, which is governed by general law, have a statutory right to own property in their own names. The law provides that land in the provinces (outside of the Western Area) cannot be bought or sold but, rather, is communal land under the custodianship of paramount chiefs and inherited by families from their ancestors. The law does not provide protections to ensure women inherit communal land on an equal basis with men. In the Themne ethnic group, women could not become paramount chiefs, subordinate chiefs, or chiefdom authorities. On the other hand, in the Mende ethnic group there were several female leaders. Every local council in the country had at least one female representative.
Discrimination occurred in access to credit, equal pay for similar work, and the ownership and management of a business. 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. 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. The law does not prohibit dismissal of pregnant workers on the basis of pregnancy.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs has a mandate to protect the rights of women, but most international and domestic NGOs asserted the ministry did not have the resources, infrastructure, and support of other ministries to handle its assigned projects effectively. 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 encouraged women to become involved in running for mayoral positions and local councils.