Sierra Leone

Executive Summary

Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a unicameral legislature. In March 2018 the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party candidate, Julius Maada Bio, won the presidential elections. In January 2018 parliamentary elections, the All People’s Congress won a plurality of the seats. After the December 12 election re-run and by-elections, the Sierra Leone People’s Party and the All People’s Congress each held 58 seats. Observers found these elections to be largely free and fair.

The Sierra Leone Police, which reports to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is responsible for law enforcement and maintains security within the country. The Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities to assist police upon request in extraordinary circumstances. The armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious acts of corruption; and criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct.

The government took some steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses, but impunity persisted.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The March 2018 presidential election, in which Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) prevailed, and the January 2018 parliamentary election, were regarded by most observers as free and fair. Several parliamentary and local re-run and by-elections held on December 12 were regarded as free and fair. There were no national level elections held during the year.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties were free to register and operate in the country. A total of 17 political parties were registered with the Political Parties Registration Commission but only four were elected into parliament during the 2018 general elections. Fourteen traditional authorities (paramount chiefs) and three independent candidates were represented in the state legislature. The NGO Center for Accountability and Rule of Law reported clashes in Freetown between supporters of the APC and SLPP took place in January. In a January 27 incident, 27 persons were reportedly wounded. Police arrested 19 persons after the clash; all were later released on bail.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women have the right to vote and did cast votes at similar rates as men. A 2018 poll by the International Republican Institute found women most frequently cited fear of violence, cultural norms, and lack of support from political parties as reasons why they avoided a more active role in politics. Women were underrepresented in government. Of the 146 parliamentarians, 17 were women, one fewer than in 2019. As of September women led five of the 26 ministries. On the three highest courts, 10 of 35 judges were women. Cultural and traditional practices in the northern areas of the country prevented women from holding office as paramount chiefs (a parallel system of tribal government operated in each of the 190 chiefdoms).

All citizens have the right to vote, but citizenship at birth is granted only to persons of “Negro-African” descent, thus disenfranchising the significant number of Lebanese and other “non-Negro-African” persons who were born in and continued to reside in the country. Persons of “non-Negro-African” groups may apply to be naturalized. If naturalized they are eligible to vote in all national and local elections, but no naturalized citizen may run for public office.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both men and women. In February 2019, President Bio declared a State of Emergency against rape and other sexual violence. In September 2019 parliament passed new legislation that raised the penalty for those convicted of rape to a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment (see also section 6, Sexual Exploitation of Children). Previously, a conviction was punishable by between five- and 15-years’ imprisonment, although many offenders were given lesser prison terms. 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. The lack of an effective judicial system continued to foster impunity for offenders, which helped perpetuate violence against women. During the year, the Family Support Unit (FSU) within the SLP reported increased cases of rape and sexual assault.

On July 24, President Bio launched the country’s first Sexual Offences Model Court with 20 judges to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases. In his statement, Bio stated the special sexual offenses court is aimed at addressing the increasing number of SGBV cases in the country. On July 9, President Bio announced a “One-Stop Centers Initiative” piloted in six government hospitals across the country, where SGBV survivors can access medical, psychosocial, and legal support.

According to the local NGO Rainbo Initiative, there were 1,272 sexual assaults reported in five districts with 217 pregnancies between January and May. Rainbo Initiative further estimated 3,701 sexual assault cases, 598 pregnancies resulting from assaults, and 255 successful prosecutions in 2019.

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 substantial fine and two years’ imprisonment. Survivors seldom reported SGBV due to their fear of social stigma and retaliation. The HRCSL observed that the incidence of 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. First Lady Fatima Bio and NGOs such as the Rainbo Center actively promoted public awareness, calling on men to refrain from violence against women.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women or girls. According to a 2017 UNICEF report, 86.1 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone a form of FGM/C. FGM/C is considered a traditional rite of passage into womanhood. UNICEF polling indicated that societal support for FGM/C remained strong in the country. FGM/C was excluded from the First Lady’s “Hands Off Our Girls” Campaign in 2019 that called for an end to child marriage and sexual violence. In December 2019 approximately 70 initiates aged above 19 underwent the Bondo secret society ceremony without the ritual circumcision as part of an initiative of the NGO Amazonian Initiative Movement. This alternative rite of passage was preceded by dozens of cutters (soweis) handing in their knives to demonstrate their commitment to refraining from cutting. The soweis signed a declaration against practicing FGM/C, preceded by the 2015 MOU the local soweis signed with the UN Population Fund to abandon harmful practices including FGM/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 substantial fine or imprisonment not exceeding three years. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, timing, and spacing of their children, and they have the right to manage their reproductive health free from coercion, discrimination, or violence, although they sometimes lacked the information and means to enjoy these rights.

Religious, social, and cultural barriers adversely limited access to contraception. The law prohibits individuals younger than the age of consent from access to contraception. The availability of contraception at health facilities varied, and individuals did not have consistent access to their specific method of choice. The inaccessibility of contraceptives for adolescents contributed to the adolescent birth rate of 101 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. The proportion of women of reproductive age who had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods was 57 percent. Modern contraceptive prevalence rates for women and girls ages15 to 49 was 21 percent.

The government established “one-stop centers” for survivors of gender-based violence in six districts across the country in government referral hospitals in Moyamba, Kailahun, Pujehun, Kabala, Port Loko, and the King Harman Road Government Referral Hospital. These centers provided comprehensive care including psychosocial, legal, medical, and shelter assistance to survivors of sexual violence, including access to sexual and reproductive health services.

No legal barriers or government policies hindered access to safe and quality maternal health-care services, including access to skilled health attendants during pregnancy and childbirth, but social or cultural barriers sometimes limited such access. According to the UNFPA, maternal mortality rate in 2017 was 1,120 per 100,000 live births, and 87 percent of births were attended by a skilled health attendant.

Major factors in the high maternal death rate included poverty; distance to medical facilities; lack of access to sufficient information about availability of health-care services; inadequate and poor-quality services, especially in remote settings; cultural beliefs and practices; early marriages and childbearing; delay in decision making to seek health-care service; and malnutrition.

According to the Ministry of Health, FGM/C increased the risk of childbirth complications, maternal death, and infertility–in addition to posing health risks associated with the procedure itself.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance law. 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. Both spouses may acquire property in their own right, and women may obtain divorces without being forced to relinquish dowries.

Authorities at the Ministry of Social Welfare 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 law applies in customary as well as formal courts, but customary judges had limited or no legal training and often were unaware of formal law or chose to ignore it. 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 and 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 (see also section 7.d.).

The Ministry of Social Welfare 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 abuses.

Birth Registration: Although the constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race, tribe, gender, place of origin, political opinion, color, and religion, the constitution also 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 the country. Children not meeting the criteria must be registered in their parents’ countries of origin.

In 2016 parliament established the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA). The NCRA is responsible for the recording of vital events including births, deaths, marriages, divorces, annulments, adoptions, legitimization, and recognition of citizens and noncitizens. The NCRA is mandated to maintain an Integrated National Civil Register. Until the outbreak of COVID-19, the NCRA was scheduled to begin operations on March 24, but the start of operations has been delayed.

The NCRA also generates and assigns unique National Identification Numbers and issues multipurpose national identity cards to citizens and other residents. It confirms personal details of citizens and noncitizen residents whose information is in the NCRA’s database and records those who have not registered with the authority. Lack of registration did not affect access to public services or result in statelessness.

Education: On March 30, President Bio and the minister of basic and senior secondary education announced the immediate end to a ban on visibly pregnant girls and teenage mothers attending school. The 10-year-old ban was characterized as divisive and discriminatory. In December 2019 the Economic Community of West Africa Court of Justice ruled that the government’s policy against pregnant girls attending school breached their rights to access education. The change in policy has resulted in more pregnant girls attending school. During the year the Ministry of Education reported that approximately 1,572 pregnant girls took the West African Examination Council exam and the Basic Education Certificate Examination.

Child Abuse: The law prohibits child abuse, including sexual abuse of children. A pattern of violence against and abuse of children existed, and according to the FSU, it increased when schools were closed. 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.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage is 18. According to UNICEF’s world children report of 2017, 39 percent of girls in the country are married before their 18th birthday and 13 percent before their 15th birthday. The report stated that child marriage in the country is linked to poverty and lack of education, and it varied among regions of the country. According to the 2019 Demographic Health Survey, 21 percent of girls in the country were pregnant or had given birth before the age of 19. In addition to the first lady’s Let Girls be Girls, Not Mothers project, President Bio in February 2019 declared a state of emergency over sexual and gender-based violence in the country. Also in July he launched the first Sexual Offences Model Court for rape proceedings.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Although the law criminalizes the sexual exploitation of children, sale of children, child trafficking, and child pornography, enforcement remained a challenge 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.

In September 2019 parliament passed a law that increased the maximum penalty for rape and sexual penetration of a minor from 15-years’ to life imprisonment. The law also increased the minimum sentence for rape of a minor to 15 years in prison and made provisions for the introduction of a new “aggravated sexual assault” offense.

Child sex trafficking–especially of children from poor homes–is a serious problem, including at beaches and in nightclubs. Local demand fueled the majority of child sex trafficking cases, although foreign tourists were also clients at beaches and nightclubs.

Displaced Children: In 2019 the NGO Help a Needy Child International reported that 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 travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

There was no Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

The law 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 the law 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. In view of 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. According to the Coordinator of the National Disability Coalition, during the year the coalition received no complaints of employment denial on the basis of disability. The coalition stated the actual number of incidents is likely much higher.

There was considerable discrimination against persons with mental disabilities. The vast majority of persons with mental disabilities received no treatment or public services. At the Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital in Kissy, the only inpatient psychiatric institution that served persons with mental disabilities, 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 to blind or deaf persons. The ministry did not provide these services consistently, and organizations reported many persons with disabilities had limited access to medical and rehabilitative care. At year’s end the ministry had not established the legally required medical board to issue Permanent Disability Certificates that would make persons with disabilities eligible for all the rights and privileges provided by law. The Ministry of Social Welfare has a mandate to provide policy oversight for problems affecting persons with disabilities but had limited capacity to do so.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

Strong ethnic loyalties, biases, and stereotypes existed among all ethnic groups. Ethnic loyalty was an important factor in the government, armed forces, and business. Complaints of ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contract assignments were common. Little ethnic segregation was apparent in urban areas, where interethnic marriage was 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, Birth Registration).

An 1861 law criminalizes same-sex sexual activity between men. There is no legal prohibition against same-sex sexual activity between women. The law, which carries a penalty of life imprisonment for “indecent assault” upon a man or 10 years’ imprisonment for attempting such an assault, was not enforced. The constitution does not offer protection from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) civil society groups alleged that because the law prohibits same-sex sexual activity between men, it limits 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 law covers 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. Although LGBTI groups noted that police bias against LGBTI individuals had not disappeared, they did report that police were increasingly treating LGBTI persons with understanding.

LGBTI advocates reported that the community faced challenges ranging from violence, stigma, discrimination, blackmailing, and public attack to denial of public services such as health care and justice. Advocates reported LGBTI persons faced no discrimination in schools. The government reportedly registered a transsexual organization in 2018, and advocates stated they have engaged with the HRCSL on LGBTI matters.

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 commercial sex to survive. Adults risked having 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.

As of September 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.

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 in 2017 informed stakeholders and government officials that HIV/AIDS stigma was on the increase. A study published by the journal BMC Public Health in February on Ebola-related stigma and its association with informal healthcare utilization among Ebola survivors indicated that HIV/AIDS patients share similar psychosocial challenges with Ebola survivors in terms of social isolation, fear of contagion, and family and community stigma and discrimination.

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