How are women and girls treated in Sierra Leone?
The gender inequality that women and girls experience in Sierra Leone is very socially engrained into their culture. It is expected that a woman’s existence will be to cook and provide pleasure to their husband or a man and to mother their children and nothing else6. There are many cultural and religious beliefs surrounding how a woman should act sexually and because of that, female genital mutilation (forced or un-forced) is a large problem that women face. This is a procedure that alters or injures the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. In Sierra Leone, it is often considered necessary in raising a girl properly to prepare her for adulthood and marriage, because it will reduce her libido and therefore help her to resist illicit sexual acts prior to marriage4. Unfortunately, studies have shown that these girls and women often experience complications following the procedure and are usually unable to get attention from medically trained professionals2.
When it comes to education, girls are usually a second thought. Especially compared to their male counterparts, there is not as high of a priority to buy them school clothing and books to participate. Women are perceived to be unable to operate in a workplace environment, so they push for men to prosper more than women. This is mostly due to pre-existing sexism and lower expectations that influence the potential for women to be successful in a workplace environment6. In order to attend school and get an education, it is common for teenage girls to become prostitutes to make money to pay for schooling. Young girls are also preyed on by men within the community who make promises of paying for school, but never follow through. Many of the girls that fall to this end up pregnant and abandoned, and having no support from family, take the lowest paid work to care for themselves and their child5.
Rape and other sexual harassment are so common, but seldom punished or prosecuted. Women are persuaded by family member to no pursue criminal convictions to maintain the family honor and are even often dismissed by police if they do try to pursue. The country’s legislation on intra-marital rape has also not been brought up to international standards and is still an ongoing problem due to the nature of most marriages being accompanied by a price for the woman5. Fortunately, though, there have been some advances made in prosecuting those who arrange forced marriages1. Because of the lack of prosecution from the police when a woman or girl is raped, often times where the father of a raped girl will negotiate with the rapist for compensation, so he (the rapist) can take his victim with him because “damaged goods” are of no use to the family anymore and are a source of shame6. Women and girls can also become more at risk to forced prostitution, sexual assault, and STDs (including HIV/AIDS). Often times, they are coerced or abducted to participate in the fighting forces of contemporary African wars and this is the starting point for a great deal of abuse3.
The women and girls of Sierra Leone face many challenges, and these are just a few. The equality between men and women in this country is far from being close. However, I did come across a lot of foundations working to fix the issues I discussed, so hopefully some change is coming.
1. Augustine S. J. Park (2006) ‘Other Inhumane Acts’: Forced Marriage, Girl Soldiers and the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Social and Legal Studies, 15:13, 315-337, DOI: 10.1177/0964663906066611
2. Bjälkander, O., Bangura, L., Leigh, B., Berggren, V., Bergström, S., & Almroth, L. (2012). Health complications of female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. International Journal of Women’s Health, 4, 321–331, DOI:10.2147/IJWH.S32670
3. Susan McKay (2004) Reconstructing fragile lives: Girls’ social reintegration in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, Gender & Development, 12:3, 19-30, DOI: 10.1080/13552070412331332280