Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. In March the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) presidential candidate, Julius Maada Bio, won the presidential elections. Maada Bio defeated Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) party by a narrow margin. In the January parliamentary elections, the APC won a plurality of the seats. Observers found the elections to be largely free and fair.
Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Human rights issues included unlawful killings; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; criminal libel; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases involving sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation/cutting; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct, leading to the arrest of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; and child labor.
The government took some steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed violations, but impunity persisted.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both men and women and a conviction 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. 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, especially involving child victims, steadily increased.
Violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Conviction of domestic violence is punishable by a fine not exceeding five million leones ($685) and two years’ imprisonment. Victims seldom reported domestic violence due to their fear of social stigma and retaliation. First Lady Fatima Jabbie-Bio, and NGOs such as the Rainbo Center actively promoted public awareness, calling on men to refrain from violence against women.
The HRCSL observed that the incidence of sexual and gender-based violence continued to rise while arrests and convictions of perpetrators were negligible. A psychosocial worker of the NGO Rainbo Center blamed the structure of the justice system and lengthy court processes for the delay in accessing justice.
In May Rainbo Center reported low conviction rates in prosecuting perpetrators of rape and sexual violence. In May the spokesperson for the country’s judiciary reported that most of the viable cases in the last two criminal sessions of the High Court were for rape.
Medical and psychological services for rape victims were limited. Police often required victims to obtain a medical report for the filing of charges, but most government doctors charged fees that were prohibitively expensive for the victims. Although the law provides that the victim of a sexual offense shall be entitled to free medical treatment and medical reports, many victims had to pay for these medical services.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women and girls. UNICEF data from 2014, the most recent available, reported that nine of 10 women and girls had undergone the procedure. In the lead up to the March elections, the minister of local government and rural development banned secret society initiation activities, including female genital mutilation (FGM/C), until after the elections. The government stated that the ban was to ensure the peaceful conduct of the elections. 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 younger than 18 years of age. The FSU reported no new cases of FGM/C during initiation of girls younger than 18 years of age from August 2017 through the year’s end, although anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice has not been entirely abandoned.
For more information, see Appendix C.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment, but authorities did not always effectively enforce it. 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. Conviction of sexual harassment is punishable by a fine not exceeding 14.3 million leones ($1,660) or imprisonment not exceeding three years. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. See Appendix C for information on maternal mortality.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance laws. Women continued to experience discriminatory practices. Their rights and positions are largely contingent on customary law and the ethnic group to which they belong. The law provides for both Sierra Leonean fathers and mothers to confer nationality to children born abroad. The law provides for equal remuneration for equal work without discrimination based on gender. Either spouse may acquire property in their own right, and women may obtain divorce without being forced to relinquish dowries.
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 Freetown. 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. 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. Women were frequently perceived to be the property of their husbands, to be inherited on his death with his other property.
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 based on 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.
Birth Registration: Although the constitution states that it prohibits discrimination based on race, tribe, gender, place of origin, political opinion, color, and religion, the constitution denies citizenship at birth to persons who are not of “Negro-African descent.” Non-Africans who have lived in the country for at least eight years (two years for foreigners married to Sierra Leonean citizens) may apply for naturalization, subject to presidential approval. Citizenship derived by birth is restricted to children with at least one parent or grandparent of Negro-African descent who was born in Sierra Leone. Children not meeting the criteria must be registered in their parents’ countries of origin.
Birth registration was not universal due to outdated birth registration laws and inadequate staffing of government registry facilities. Lack of registration did not affect access to public services or result in statelessness. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Education: Despite President Maada Bio’s Free and Quality Education Program enacted in August as part of his attempt to follow through on campaign promises, pregnant girls continued to be prohibited from attending classes and taking examinations with other students on the grounds that they were a “bad moral influence.”
Child Abuse: A pattern of violence against and abuse of children existed, and according to the FSU, it increased between January and August compared with previous years. The FSU reported the following forms of child abuse to be on the increase: sexual violence, abandonment, and trafficking. FSU personnel were trained in dealing with sexual violence against children, and cases of child sexual abuse generally were taken more seriously than adult rape cases.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. According to UNICEF, child marriage is a major restriction on girls’ education. According to UNICEF’s world children report of 2017, 39 percent of girls in the country are married before their 18th birthday. The report stated that child marriage in the country is linked to poverty, lack of education, and geographical area. On August 9, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children, LAB, and the Sierra Leone Police interrupted an underage marriage and arrested parents who acted contrary to law. The government is currently implementing “Let Girls be Girls, Not Mothers,” a two-year national strategy to reduce teenage pregnancy. On July 17, the Inter-Religious Council promised not to conduct any marriage when members think the bride is younger than the age of 18.
According to UNICEF the country is one of 12 selected to be part of the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF’s global program to accelerate action to end child marriage and teenage pregnancy, which are still major challenges.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Although the law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, and child trafficking, including child pornography, enforcement remained a problem and conviction numbers remained low. In many cases of sexual assault of children, parents accepted payment instead of taking the perpetrator to court due to difficulties dealing with the justice system, fear of public shame, and economic hardship.
According to a UNICEF case study in 2017, the FSU of the Sierra Leone Police estimated more than 1,000 children experience sexual violence in the country each year. The World Vision 2017 Research report confirms that sexual violence, including verbal and emotional abuse, inappropriate touching, physical harassment, and rape, continued to surge and affects 13.2 percent of boys and 21.5 percent of girls. The same study stated that the perpetrators of sexual abuse and exploitation are normally persons who live in the same community and are known to the children, with more than one-third being either a close relative or an extended relative.
Displaced Children: The NGO Needy Child International reported that during the year approximately 50,000 children worked and lived on the street, with 45,000 of them engaged in artisanal gravel production in the Western Area.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html.
There was no Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The Persons With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment and provision of state services, including judicial services. The government did not effectively implement laws and programs to provide access to buildings, information, and communications. The government-funded Commission on Persons with Disabilities is charged with protecting the rights and promoting the welfare of persons with disabilities. Given the high rate of general unemployment, work opportunities for persons with disabilities were limited, and begging was commonplace. Children with disabilities were also less likely to attend school than other children.
There was considerable discrimination against persons with mental disabilities. The vast majority of persons with mental disabilities received no treatment or public services. The Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital in Kissy, the only inpatient psychiatric institution that served persons with mental disabilities, was underfunded. Authorities reported that only one consulting psychiatrist was available, patients were not provided sufficient food, and restraints were primitive and dehumanizing. The hospital lacked running water and had only sporadic electricity. Only basic medications were available.
The Ministry of Health and Sanitation is responsible for providing free primary health-care services to persons with polio and diabetic retinopathy as well as those who are blind or deaf. The ministry did not provide these services consistently, and organizations reported many persons with disabilities had limited access to medical and rehabilitative care. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs has a mandate to provide policy oversight for issues affecting persons with disabilities but had limited capacity to do so.
The population included 18 ethnic groups of African origin. In addition there were significant Lebanese and Indian minorities and small groups of European and Pakistani origin. Little ethnic segregation was apparent in urban areas, where interethnic marriage was common. The two largest ethnic groups were the Themne in the North and the Mende in the South. Each group constituted approximately 30 percent of the population. Strong ethnic loyalties, bias, and stereotypes existed among all ethnic groups. Ethnic loyalty was an important factor in the government, the armed forces, and business. Complaints of ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contract assignments, and military promotions were common.
Residents of non-African descent faced some institutionalized discrimination, particularly in the areas of citizenship and nationality (see sections 3, Participation of Women and Minorities, and 6, Children, Birth Registration).
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
A law from 1861 prohibits male-to-male sexual acts, but there is no legal prohibition against female-to-female sex. The 1861 law, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment for “indecent assault” upon a man or 10 years for attempting such an assault, was not enforced. The constitution does not offer protection from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and gender-identity civil society groups alleged that because the law prohibits male-to-male sexual activity, the law limits lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons from exercising their freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. The law, however, does not restrict the rights of persons to speak out on LGBTI human rights. No hate crime laws cover bias-motivated violence against LGBTI persons. The law does not address transgender persons.
A few organizations, including Dignity Association, supported LGBTI persons, but they maintained low profiles. LGBTI groups alleged that police were biased against them.
The NGO Dignity Association reported that the LGBTI community faced challenges ranging from violence, stigma, discrimination, blackmailing, and public attack to denial of public services such as healthcare and justice. The NGO reported nine cases of discrimination against two staff members and a police officer in Bo during the year. It reported that three LGBTI persons were subjected to physical violence, denied medical service, and evicted from their houses due to their LGBTI status.
In the areas of employment and education, sexual orientation or gender identity were bases for abusive treatment, which led individuals to leave their jobs or courses of study. It was difficult for LGBTI individuals to receive health services–many chose not to seek medical testing or treatment due to fear their right to confidentiality would be ignored. Obtaining secure housing was also a problem for LGBTI persons. Families frequently shunned their LGBTI children, leading some to turn to sex work to survive. Adults could have their leases terminated if their LGBTI status became public. Women in the LGBTI community reported social discrimination from male LGBTI persons and the general population. On June 9, authorities expelled two female secondary school students for kissing each other in public. Dignity Association reported that after NGOs expressed concerns to school authorities about the expulsions, the authorities agreed to allow the girls to return to the school.
As of August there was no information regarding any official action by government authorities to investigate or punish public entities or private persons complicit in abuses against LGBTI persons.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law prohibits discrimination based on actual, perceived, or suspected HIV status, but society stigmatized persons with HIV/AIDS. The Network of HIV Positive in Sierra Leone (NETHIP-SL) in December 2017 informed stakeholders and government officials that HIV/AIDS stigma was on the increase. NETHIP-SL reported that adults with HIV/AIDS lacked employment and promotion opportunities. There were also reports men often divorced their wives due to HIV/AIDS status, leaving the latter without financial support. Authorities from the National AIDS Secretariat reported that 3,352 children were infected with HIV. NETHIP-SL reported children were denied access to education because of their HIV status and the issue of children with HIV/AIDS had been missing in the HIV/AIDS prevention process.