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Sierra Leone

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses


Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of both men and women, with a statutory minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment for offenders. Rape was common and viewed more as a societal norm than a criminal problem. The law specifically prohibits spousal rape. The law also criminalizes domestic violence, punishable by a substantial fine and two years’ imprisonment. Although awareness of rape and domestic violence increased over the years, indictments were rare, especially in rural areas, due to medical reporting requirements, high court fees, and an inefficient judicial system. Survivors of sexual offenses, often at the encouragement of their families, tended to compromise with offenders out of court. As a result a culture of impunity persisted, which perpetuated gender-based violence. The FSU within the SLP reported increased cases of rape and sexual assault, while arrests and convictions of perpetrators were negligible. Local NGO Rainbo Initiative reported a rise in sexual and gender-based violence cases across all five Rainbo Centers in Freetown, Makeni, Kono, Kenema, and Bo, with a total of 3,584 sexual and gender-based violence cases in 2020. Of the cases, 86 percent involved children younger than age 18.

According to the FSU and the HRCSL, violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often shrouded by a culture of silence. Survivors seldom reported sexual and gender-based violence due to their fear of social stigma and retaliation. The HRCSL and Rainbo Initiative observed an absence of medical personnel in most communities and lengthy court delays in processing cases. First Lady Fatima Bio 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 the 2019 Demographic and Health Survey, approximately 8 percent of girls up to age 14 and 83 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 had undergone some form of FGM/C. FGM/C was often performed on women and girls being initiated into traditional secret societies and was considered by those organizations and others in society as a rite of passage into womanhood. Approximately 57 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had heard of FGM/C and thought the practice should continue. UNICEF polling indicated that 68 percent of respondents supported FGM/C.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government banned secret society gatherings, although some observers believed undercover FGM/C initiations continued. The economic impact of COVID-19 might have reduced FGM/C rates in the short term, but the longer-term impact was uncertain. The HRCSL reported that some girls were abducted from their homes and the streets and subjected to forced FGM/C initiation rituals.

Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment. It is unlawful to make unwanted sexual advances, repeatedly follow or pursue others against their will, initiate unwanted communications with others, or engage in any other menacing behavior. Offenders faced substantial fines or imprisonment not exceeding three years, but authorities did not always effectively enforce the law. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Vulnerable populations lacked the ability to provide informed consent to medical procedures affecting reproductive health.

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 (see the Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting subsection for additional information).

No legal barriers or government policies hindered access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including access to skilled health attendants during pregnancy and childbirth, but social or cultural barriers sometimes limited such access. 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 to 19. According to the 2019 Demographic and Health Survey, the proportion of teenagers who began childbearing rose rapidly with age, from 4 percent at age 15 to 45 percent at age 19. Adolescent mothers were also more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes and to face challenges in pursuing educational opportunities. 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 ages 15 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. Emergency contraception was not available as part of the clinical management of rape cases.

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 2019 Demographic and Health Survey, the maternal mortality rate was 717 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 regarding 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 services; and malnutrition.

Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance law. The law provides for both 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. Their rights were largely contingent on customary law, particularly in matters of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance, which were 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 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 infrastructure or support of other ministries to handle its assigned projects effectively.

Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities can access education, health services, and transportation on an equal bases with others. The law mandates access to these services, and prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment and provision of state services, including judicial services. The government-funded Commission on Persons with Disabilities is charged with protecting the rights and promoting the welfare of persons with disabilities. The NGO Defense for Children International stated the government did not effectively enforce the law or implement programs to make buildings, information, and communications accessible. In view of the high rate of general unemployment, work opportunities for persons with disabilities were even more limited, and begging was commonplace. with disabilities were also less likely to attend school than other children.

There was considerable discrimination against persons with mental disabilities. According to the HRCSL, several Kenema residents poured boiling hot water on a man living with a mental disability who caused a disturbance near their home. The perpetrators confessed to the crime, and authorities charged them in court.

Most 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 or sanitation facilities, and restraints were primitive and dehumanizing.

Local NGOs documented discrimination against persons with albinism in Kenema and Freetown, including mistreatment and denial of medical care.

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. 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.

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