Examining Gender Inequality in the Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Efforts of Sierra Leone

by Megan Borishansky

Historical Background

Colonized by the British as a territory for liberated slaves known as Creoles or “Krios”, Sierra Leone’s history is one of class divisions and gender inequality, compounded by the civil war of 1992-2002 and struggles over natural resources. Freetown was established as a British colony where the slave trade was suppressed and Creoles dominated, creating a division with the indigenous Africans residing in the further removed parts of Sierra Leone. Abundant reserves of diamonds, chromite, rutile, bauxite, columbite, and gold contrast with the nation’s rank as one of the most poorly developed on the UNDP Index. Hazel McFerson notes both educational and economic distinctions in her description of the various tribes present in Sierra Leone, and refers to the nation’s women as being among “the most marginalized in the world, socially, economically, and politically” (Hazel, 2011, p.127).  Artisinal mining in the Tongo Fields and other mineral-rich areas of Sierra Leone is one of the few means of earning an income, and improving these women’s quality of life, though the work is laborious and their profits are often minimal.

Additional context regarding the history of gender inequality in Sierra Leone may be provided by further examining the impact of colonization, as well as the general patriarchal nature of the nation’s social structure. Women in Sierra Leone did hold prominent political roles and other positions of power prior to colonization and the civil war which drastically reduced their ability to be taken seriously as influential members of society. Family structure and property rights are both patrilineal in nature, making women entirely dependent on their husbands or male members of their families for sustenance. Those who lack connections to males by family lines or marriage are particularly vulnerable, with widows also struggling to make ends meet, many of whom were left standing after their husbands were killed in the civil war. The practice of “widow inheritance” requires that a widow marry the brother of her deceased husband, which in some instances provides income though the widow may or may not consent to the marriage itself. Entering into marriage is not required to be consensual for women, as the Family Code in Sierra Leone stipulates that only the parents of the bride must agree and no minimum age is specified for brides to be wed. Paying a bride price is also customary in Sierra Leone, and the wealth of a bride’s family often determines her sense of security or lack thereof. Husbands often engage in polygamy, thereby threatening the economic security of any wives less favored than others (Hazel, 2011).

The patriarchal nature dominating many practices in Sierra Leone is additionally illustrated in the chiefdom structure historically used in local governance, which elects Paramount Chiefs and additional chiefs at varying levels of power to resolve disputes, serve as guardians of the land, and manage mining activity. The majority of elected chiefs are male and hold more power than the nominal number of female chiefs, an imbalance which has lent itself to corruption on the part of several male chiefs. Efforts have been made to diminish the power of the chiefs, such as awarding the Ministry of Local Government the responsibility of supervising them directly, while gradually shifting power to municipal councils. Further strides could be taken by increasing the representation of women in local governance and establishing a balanced power dynamic between male and female chiefs.

Women’s Rights Initiatives

The end of the civil war marked the beginning of women’s rights initiatives on the part of the Government of Sierra Leone in conjunction with a push for gender equality by the international community.  This was reflected in the introduction of the National Policy for the Advancement of Women and the Policy on Gender Mainstreaming in 2000 by the nation’s Parliament. Subsequently, the Poverty Reduction Strategy was implemented in 2005, followed by a strategic plan on the part of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) (Abdullah & Fofana-Ibrahim, 2010). This plan aimed to dissolve four identified obstacles to women’s empowerment in Sierra Leone, including gender-based violence, various barriers to economic success, dangerous/exploitative means of employment, and the lack of educational initiatives to develop gender awareness and sensitivity among Sierra Leonean men and women.

Additional support was provided by resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, and 1889, written by the UN Security Council which outlined measures regarding the inclusion of women’s rights provisions in post-conflict societies. The UN Resolution 1325 on “Women, Peace and Security’ was dedicated to addressing gender-based violence and sexual violence in Sierra Leone. Josephine Beoku-Betts argues that the actions taken to strengthen women’s legal rights and support local women’s peace initiatives as a result of this Resolution, failed to address the institutional and structural characteristics that fuel sexual violence outside of conditions of conflict, thereby doing little to resolve the issue (Beoku-Betts, 2016, p.654). In examining sexual violence in Sierra Leone, the default approach is to focus on the rape, kidnapping, forced sexual servitude, and additional forced domestic and combatant roles these women served during the civil war. More attention needs to be devoted to broadening the roles Sierra Leonean women are permitted by their society to fulfill, while establishing greater overall support for their independence and well-being.

Gender Equality Measures and Local Laws

The marriage, property, and inheritance laws in Sierra Leone as well as the persistent issues of hunger and poverty must be constructively addressed if any progress is to be made in the fight against gender-based violence (Beoku-Betts, 2016). Acts on a local level that did aim to address these issues were the 2007 Domestic Violence Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, and the Devolution of Estates Act. With these Acts, domestic violence and sexual harassment were defined and condemned, the age of 18 years was set as a minimum for marriage and the consent of both parties required, and a wife and her children could not be evicted from a home following the husband’s death or deprived of the right to inherit his property. Although the intent and language of these laws took a step toward gender equality in Sierra Leone, Beoku-Betts states that unfortunately violence against women still persists and many cases go unreported (Beoku-Betts, 2016). In addition, she cites flaws in the Constitution which has not been revised by the Government of Sierra Leone and prevents effective implementation of the Acts described above.

Post-war recovery efforts did also examine basic food and healthcare needs affecting women and children, as consolidated in the United Nations Development Assistance Framework from 2004 to 2007, though any results achieved by the state have been minimal at best. The government of Sierra Leone also agreed in 2007 to honor the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), thereby implementing practices and reporting in compliance with its statutes. Stated goals included setting a 30 percent quota for women in all elected and appointed positions, increasing micro-credit facilities and needed training for women (Abdullah & Fofana-Ibrahim, 2010).

Despite efforts to introduce new gender conscious policies and promote women’s rights, the Government of Sierra Leone failed to revise the original Constitution to reflect such changes. A clause in the Constitution states that the areas of “adoption, marriage, divorce, burial, devolution of property in death or other interests in personal law” are independent of the Bill of Rights outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex, political views or religion. In other words, the law permits discrimination against Sierra Leonean women in various regards, namely regarding land tenure which has prevented many post-war widows from inheriting land previously owned by their husbands or fathers. National policies contradict each other, thereby failing to uphold the guidelines set by international peacebuilding agendas. Similarly with the issue of land tenure the 2007 Devolution of Estates Act gave Sierra Leonean women the legal right to inherit land, but few cases of this occurring exist in practice. Caitlin Ryan attributes this failure to “the role of pervasive power inequalities between men and women, as well as between land-owning and non-land-owning families” and the “wider social, economic and political systems that support these inequalities” (Ryan, 2018, p.192).

Ryan’s theories also speak to John Paul Lederach’s definition of ‘transformation’, which he views as being representative of “efforts to provide insight into underlying causes and social conditions that create and foster violent expressions of conflict” (Lederach as summarized by Burgess, 2017).

Implications of Laws on Social Structures

Despite the 2007 change in law, ingrained patriarchal traditions where lineage is concerned have continued to intersect with land ownership, resulting in minimal advancement for Sierra Leonean women. The patriarchal power dynamics present in the lineage and land ownership practices of Sierra Leone create an ‘in-group’/’out-group’ division between those belonging to a lineage of land ownership and those who do not (Millar, 2012). Women are caught between these ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, as they are wholly dependent on their connections with husbands or male family figures. Even when they have the right connections, they do not enjoy the stability that men in the ‘in-group’ are able to maintain, due to the impermanence of these relationships.

Roles and Identities of Sierra Leonean Women

Although Gearoid Millar argues that he did not find evidence of ‘in-group’/’out-group’ identities in his research on the postwar environment of Sierra Leone, I would argue that such identities were already present in the nation’s greater traditions, cultural practices, and power structures. Not only are women at the mercy of these practices and power structures, they are also deprived of forming concrete identities, given that their identities are dependent on their relationships with male figures. Typical roles or identifiers for Sierra Leonean women are ‘wives’, ‘mothers’ or ‘sex slaves’. Although they are not given much ‘air-time’ in scholarship covering the conflict and subsequent reconciliation processes, several women served as soldiers in the civil war, which was one manner of constructing independent identities for themselves. Despite serving as soldiers, women and girls still tended to be viewed as victims, which as Megan MacKenzie states overlooks “how socially constructed ideas about the roles and place of women and men during war impact policies, depictions, and our ability to accept and acknowledge violent female soldiers with agency” (MacKenzie, 2009, p.247).

Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of Female Soldiers

Given that female soldiers were generally denied acknowledgement of their active role in Sierra Leone’s civil war, they also faced barriers to participating in the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process referred to as DDR. These barriers involved a combination of logistical failures, negative perceptions of the program, and fears regarding stigma associated with going through the disarmament process. Former female soldiers interviewed by MacKenzie cited distrust of the international NGOs implementing the program, as well as perceived corruption of the funds by officials which were designated for DDR. Of international aid, Anderson, Brown and Jean state that civil society leaders in the country receiving aid often face “competing demands and expectations” and are particularly caught in the middle when it is a society whose “traditions dictate strong familial and clan allegiances” such as is the case in Sierra Leone (Anderson, Brown & Jean, 2012, p. 90).

Aside from the alleged presence of corruption in the international aid delivery process, former female soldiers also felt that the NGOs were more concerned with their own agendas of “doing good” than carrying out meaningful reconstruction processes in Sierra Leone. Leaving women largely out of the DDR process is one example of how deliverance of aid according to external criteria and agendas can “reinforce receiving country social and political divisions” (Anderson, Brown & Jean, 2012, p,25). In Sierra Leone’s case, the divisions based on gender inequality rooted in traditions of lineage and patriarchy, were reinforced in the unwillingness to acknowledge the active and often violent roles that women played in the civil war.

One common misconception regarding the program was that women needed to possess a gun in order to be found eligible to participate. Given that weapons used during the civil war varied, and many combatants had left their armed groups prior to the implementation of the DDR program sometimes with great risks involved, multiple factors inhibited them from attempting to enroll in DDR. Among these factors was the fear of being stigmatized by openly acknowledging their roles as female soldiers, which was considered shameful not only for the combatants themselves, but their families as well.

Another issue was that young girls also served as soldiers in the war and would be eligible for the children’s version of DDR, but did not consider themselves to be children, due to the adult roles their lives had forced them to serve over several years. Whether they had lost their parents, or were mothers at a young age, these teenage girls felt they did not qualify as “children” and officials implementing the DDR process felt they did not qualify as “adults”, thereby excluding them from the DDR process. A minimal number of women considered themselves above the process entirely due to their beauty, popularity, or previous position of authority. As exhibited by the accounts provided by former female soldiers, international response to post-war reconstruction in Sierra Leone failed to adequately address the various factors preventing girls and women from participating in the DDR process.

International Aid and Peacebuilding

Abdullah and Fofana-Ibrahim ask why it is “so difficult to translate the international gender and peacebuilding agenda at the national and/or grassroots levels”? (Abdullah & Fofana-Ibrahim, 2010, p. 265). It is evident that Sierra Leonean women have asked the same question and have not sat back waiting for the international community and their government to arrive at an answer for them. Despite the patriarchal nature of their culture, these women took it upon themselves to organize independently, to address the above-mentioned issues and envision a path of greater empowerment for their futures. Abdullah, Ibrahim and King state that the women of Sierra Leone historically held positions of power such as those of chiefs, mayors, cabinet ministers, and members of parliament. Those women who were able to rise to these positions did so on an individual basis, however, and their opportunity or lack thereof was dependent on their connections to powerful men, political party affiliation, and educational background. In order to develop similar opportunities for Sierra Leonean women as a whole, organizations formed such as the Women’s Movement formed in 1955, which advocated for women’s inclusion in politics and the public arena (Abdullah et. al, 2010).

After the start of the civil war in Sierra Leone, the mission of women’s organizing became devoted to peacebuilding, with the Sierra Leone Association of University Women leading the way in 1994. Additional organizations subsequently formed included the Sierra Leonean Women’s Movement for Peace (SLWMP) and Women Organised for a Morally Enlightened Nation (WOMEN), while a notable female presence was also organized to participate in national conferences and forums dedicated to peacebuilding. The SLWMP was recognized for its work in 2003 when a regional women’s peace organization, the Mano River Women’s Peace Network, was awarded the UN Peace Prize (Beoku-Betts, 2016).

Given these peacebuilding efforts, it is evident that women in Sierra Leone have been resourceful in finding ways to organize independently. Success in this regard unfortunately has not been effectively combined with international aid, and scholarship on gender inequality in post-war Sierra Leone consistently notes the pointed vulnerability of the nation’s women where poverty is concerned. Beoku-Betts reports that although poverty has been reduced in general in Sierra Leone after the civil war, compliance with gender equality measures outlined by the Millennium Development Goals has not been fulfilled. “Women are more vulnerable to poverty given their dominance in the informal sector, low salaries, low literacy rates, high maternal and infant mortality rates, low participation in governance, and the prevalence of gender and sexual-based violence in the country (African Development Bank as quoted by Beoku Betts, 2016, p.661).

 The majority of Sierra Leonean women engage in informal labor such as soap making, hairdressing and childcare in order to earn an income, albeit a small one, or in trading and selling food and clothes. The widespread lack of economic opportunity available to women in Sierra Leone contributed led some to engage in looting during the war, thereby providing them with goods to sell or trade. Abdullah et. al state that after the war when looting was no longer an option, a spike in sex work occurred, the demand for which stemmed from the large presence of peacekeepers from the UN and the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) (Abdullah et. al, 2010). Many of the women who engaged in sex work were thought to be ex-combatants. Although peacebuilding efforts by the UN and ECOMOG may have made sense in the short-term for Sierra Leone, they did not succeed in transforming the socially and culturally ingrained patriarchy that has impeded the long-term, comprehensive empowerment of the nation’s women. In fact, their demand for sex workers effectively inhibited the advancement of women’s rights in Sierra Leone.


 In conclusion, the steps taken in post-war Sierra Leone to improve issues of gender inequality as part of a larger global peacebuilding agenda, failed to address ingrained patriarchal practices in the social, political, and cultural traditions outlined in the nation’s Constitution. Despite the enactment of several reformative bills and policies on both national and international levels, true change could not be achieved as these new policies conflicted with the outdated provisions of Sierra Leone’s Constitution. Women in Sierra Leone continue to face intense poverty, while their government and the international community ignore their raised voices and independent activism, convinced that these women should be described as victims. In order to effect transformative change which gives Sierra Leonean women the opportunity to grow beyond the point where their society and culture have held them for so many years, the outdated Constitution must be revised, and the peacebuilding groups formed by these women must be given the opportunity to partner on a grassroots level with both the Government of Sierra Leone and NGOs who listen to them first, leaving personal and donors’ agendas aside.



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