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.
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.
Education: Education is tuition free and universal at the primary level for all children. At the junior/secondary level, however, education is tuition free only for girls, based on a government policy to encourage female education. As of October the government had not reported statistics on enrollment numbers for boys and girls. The government continued to prohibit pregnant girls from attending classes and taking examinations in the same classrooms with other students on the grounds that pregnant girls were a “bad moral influence” on other students. The law allows girls to return to school after giving birth, but there were reports that some communities did not permit readmission to school for these girls.
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. Substantial enforcement problems remained, and conviction numbers remained low. In many cases of sexual assault on 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.
Although authorities charged and convicted perpetrators in many of these cases, a large number of cases were withdrawn or resolved through informal negotiation.
Child rights laws also provide for the creation of family courts and child committees at the local government level, but NGOs reported significant work remained to establish such entities nationwide. There were many child-welfare committees across the country, but they were fully functioning only at the district and chiefdom level and not at the village level.
Early and Forced Marriage: Although the law prohibits marriage of boys and girls under the age of 18, including forced marriage, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs reported the practice of early and forced child marriages continued to be a problem, especially in rural areas. The International Center for Research on Women reported that 44 percent of girls in the country were married before 18 years of age, and 14 percent were wed before 14 years of age. On August 17, the Office of the First Lady launched the Campaign to End Child Marriage, with government agencies, religious and traditional leaders, and civil society organizations, which pledged support to eradicate early child marriage and punish those who perpetrated the practice. UNICEF supported the government in addressing child marriage at the local level through awareness raising and training of communities and stakeholders. Prevalence of early marriage was highest in the North.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): See information provided in women’s section above.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Although, the law criminalizes sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, and child trafficking, including child pornography, enforcement remained a problem. Sexual exploitation of children, including rape and sexual penetration, was a serious problem. The FSU reported 698 cases of sexual exploitation of children between January and August, with only 142 cases taken to court. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18. Children under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution. Many children were exploited in prostitution or engaged in petty trading and other economic activities to survive, rendering them vulnerable to trafficking and other exploitative practices. A joint report of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs and British NGO Street Child of Sierra Leone, published in 2012, the most recent available, found that two-thirds of street children were engaged in some type of income-generating activity. The survey specifically categorized child laborers as participants in fixed businesses, moveable businesses, casual workers, beggars, or victims of commercial sexual activity.
Displaced Children: The NGO Needy Child International reported during the year 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. For information see the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.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, and it calls for free health care and education for persons with disabilities, equal access to government buildings, housing, and public transportation, and provision of rehabilitation services. The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in relation to air travel. 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 few, and begging by them 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 Sierra Leone Psychiatric Hospital in Kissy, the only inpatient psychiatric institution, served persons with mental disabilities. The government did not provide adequate funding for the hospital, which relied on donations from private charities. The hospital had only one consulting psychiatrist, patients were not provided sufficient food, and restraints were primitive and dehumanizing. The hospital did not have running water and only sporadic electricity. Basic medications were available, but many drugs to treat specific problems were lacking. The vast majority of persons with mental disabilities remained untreated and received no public services.
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 National Committee for Social Action provided some support through limited programs to vulnerable communities. 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.
Some of the many individuals maimed in the civil war, including those who had their limbs amputated, received special assistance from local and international humanitarian organizations. Such programs involved reconstructive surgery, prostheses, and vocational training to help victims acquire new work skills, although other amputees complained they did not receive sufficient assistance.
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. The Krio, 2 percent of the population, historically dominated the civil service and judiciary. Strong ethnic loyalties, bias, and stereotypes existed among all ethnic groups. The Themne and Mende vied historically for political power, and violence during the 11-year civil war had some ethnic undertones. Ethnic loyalty remained an important factor in the government, the armed forces, and business. Complaints of ethnic discrimination in government appointments, contract assignment, 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).
A small percentage of the Lebanese population (naturalized in the past) enjoyed the full rights of citizenship, such as suffrage, access to health care and education, and the right to purchase freehold land. Naturalized citizens not of Negro-African descent cannot transmit citizenship to their children born in the country; these children must apply for naturalization if they want to become citizens. While not entitled to the rights of citizens, nonnaturalized persons born in the country are entitled to a Sierra Leonean passport, and many Lebanese Sierra Leoneans traveled on one without difficulty.
The Lebanese community reported no cases of overt discrimination based on race or nationality. Community leaders stressed, however, that many Lebanese families felt alienated from the indigenous population, even though persons of Lebanese descent have resided in the country since the 1880s.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
A law from 1861 prohibits male-to-male sexual acts (“buggery” and “crimes against nature”), 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 LGBTI persons from exercising the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. The law, however, does not restrict the rights of persons to speak out on LGBTI issues. No hate crime laws cover LGBTI persons. The law does not address transgender persons.
A few organizations, including Dignity Association and the local chapter of Pride Equality, supported LGBTI persons, but they maintained low profiles. LGBTI groups claimed police were biased against them.
Dignity Association reported that in May police disrupted and shut down an LGBTI social event in Aberdeen; officers arrested and held in custody overnight 18 participants. LGBTI groups reported that LGBTI persons feared going to the SLP to report violations, including societal discrimination.
Societal discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity occurred in nearly every facet of life for known LGBTI persons, and many chose to have heterosexual relationships and family units to shield them. In the areas of employment and education, sexual orientation or gender identity was a basis for abusive treatment, which led individuals to leave their jobs or courses of study. It was difficult for gays and lesbians to receive health services due to fear their right to confidentiality would be ignored if they disclosed their ailments; many chose not to be tested or treated for sexually transmitted infections. Obtaining secure housing was also a problem for LGBTI persons. Families frequently shunned their LGBTI children, leading some to turn to prostitution to survive. Adults could lose their leases if their sexual orientation 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. The NGO 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. There was no official discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDs, but NGOs reported children were denied access to education because of their HIV status. Adults with HIV/AIDS lacked employment and promotion opportunities. There were also reports men often divorced their wives due to HIV/AIDS status, leaving them without financial support. Through August, Dignity Association and the government agency National AIDS Secretariat reported receiving no specific complaints from persons regarding workplace discrimination or stigma based on HIV/AIDS status. Dignity Association reported, however, that persons with HIV/AIDS expressed concerns that nurses at hospitals discriminated against them in the provision of medicines and medical care.