Women in Sierra Leone
Sierra Leonean woman in traditional dress
General Statistics
Maternal mortality (per 100,000)890 (2010)
Women in parliament12.4% (2013)
Women over 25 with secondary education9.5% (2012)
Women in labour force65.7% (2012)
Gender Inequality Index[1]
Value0.633 (2021)
Rank162nd out of 191
Global Gender Gap Index[2]
Value0.672 (2022)
Rank109th out of 146

Sierra Leone, officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, is a Constitutional Republic in West Africa.[3] Since it was founded in 1792, the women in Sierra Leone have been a major influence in the political and economic development of the nation.

Sierra Leonean women face extreme gender inequality.[4] They experience high levels of poverty, violence, and exclusion.[4] Nevertheless, they have also played an important role in the education system, founding schools and colleges, with some such as Hannah Benka-Coker being honoured with the erection of a statue for her contributions[5] and Lati Hyde-Forster, first woman to graduate from Fourah Bay College being honored with a doctor of civil laws degree by the University of Sierra Leone.[6]

Early history (1787–1900)

Madam Lehbu, queen of Upper Gaura in 1891.

With the establishment of the Province of Freedom in 1787, a Sherbro known as Queen Yamacouba was a signatory to the treaty of 1787 which ceded the land to the British.[7]

After the destruction of the Province of Freedom in 1789 and the establishment of Freetown and the Colony of Sierra Leone in 1792, all heads of Nova Scotian Settler households were eligible to vote in the upcoming elections in Freetown and one-third were ethnic African women.[8]

The majority of the ancestors of the Sierra Leone Creole people were repatriated African American, Jamaican Maroon and Liberated African women principally of Akan, Igbo and Yoruba extraction.[9] Creole households in Freetown were different from traditional African ethnic groups in Sierra Leone in that women had property rights and economic freedom and qualified as professionals such as lawyers and doctors in the early twentieth century.[9] This independence gave women the freedom to travel.[9] As they were financially independent, they were able to divorce to improve their lives economically.[9]

From 1830, the women in Sierra Leone were well known for their trading of non-slave-related items.[10] A notable woman trader of the period was Liberated African Betsy Carew who had married a butcher, James Thomas, and sold meat to the army.[11]

The Creole female traders were Christian.[12] Creole women traded along the entirety of the West Coast expanding both their trade and spreading the Christian religion.[12] However, by 1900 European companies began to dominate trade and the Creoles moved to other professions such as medicine and teaching.[12]

In 1878, Madam Yoko became the Queen of Kpaa Mende Seneghum, which had become one of the largest political alliances within the interior. She also went to war against smaller tribes to increase her holdings.[13] In 1898 she supported the British during a rebellion, which also allowed her to expand her holdings. At the time of her death in 1906, her confederacy had become so large it had to be divided into 15 chiefdoms.[14]

T J. Alldridge the first commissioner of Sierra Leone reported signing peace treaties with two women chiefs in 1889.[15]


Adelaide Casely Hayford, Creole woman dressed in Fante attire on her wedding day

In the city of Freetown, before World War I a woman's position was decided on either class or ethnicity. The Creole people were the dominant ethnic group, with some having access to a better education, the wealthier families had their daughters sent to British finishing schools. The majority of Creole women however fell into the lower classes and their education usually did not go beyond elementary school level in a similar vein to their male counterparts of the same class.[16]: 439 

In 1915, Adelaide Casely-Hayford played an important part regarding women's rights in Freetown giving a lecture on "The rights of Women and Christian Marriage". In 1923 she founded the "Girls Industrial and Technical Training School" with the aim to make women self-sufficient economically.[16]: 440  In 1930 women were given the right to vote, according to local lawyer J. C. Zizer this could be attributed to the numbers of women who now worked in the civil service where their employment terms were equal to their male counterparts.[16]: 442 

In 1938, Constance Cummings-John was the first woman in Africa to be elected to a municipal council and she was the first woman to be elected Mayor of Freetown. Her actions led to the formation of the Sierra Leone Market Women's Union and the Washerwoman's Union.[17] In 1952 she founded the Sierra Leone Women's Movement as well as a newspaper.[18] She founded the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls and funded it from the proceeds of her quarrying business.[19]

In 1943, Frances Wright was called to the bar, becoming the first female lawyer in Sierra Leone, she was also given an appointment by the government as a magistrate.[20] She was a legal adviser to the British High Commission in Freetown and was considered a champion of women's rights.[21]

In 1957, four women ran for parliament: Patience Richards, Constance Cummings-John, Ellen G.A. Caulker and Mrs. C.T. Williams. Cummings-John and Richards both won their bids but their party filed electoral petitions against them, preventing them from taking their seats.[22]

In 1960 the National Congress of Sierra Leone Women (NCSLW), led by Nancy Steele was founded as a women's wing of the All People's Congress (APC).[23]

Two female candidates stood for parliamentary seats in 1967: Yema Catherine Williams and Julie Keturah Kayode.[22]

In the 1973 general election Nancy Steele and Ester Lily Coker stood for election as independent candidates.[22] By now Sierra Leone had become a one-party state and their campaigns were unsuccessful.[22]

1978 saw Nancy Steele as the sole woman to stand for parliament in the general election.[22]

1970 - 1990

In 1970, out of the 81 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone, 10 were led by women.[24]

In 1989, UNICEF reported that on average a woman in Sierra Leone worked up to 16 hours a day and that the majority were surviving on just one meal per day. There was a maternal mortality rate of 70% primarily from infections and malnutrition.[25]

1990 - 2000

A Mende woman in a Sierra Leone village.

During the civil war(1991–2002), it is estimated that 33% of human rights violations were perpetrated against women.

A report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated that thousands of women and girls were abducted from their homes and suffered physical-, sexual- and psychological abuse, including rape and forced pregnancy.[26] Many of them were subject to servitude, slavery and forced cannibalism while others were drugged, tortured and murdered.[26]

Sierra Leonean women and girls who endured forced pregnancies and gave birth to children by their abusers faced severe social consequences, including social isolation.[27]

A number of women and girls became soldiers with the Revelutionary United Front (RUF) during the Civil War.[27]

During the war, a group women organized founded the Sierra Leone Women's Movement for Peace, and using peaceful protests attempted to mediate peace between the warring factions.[28][29]

2000 - present

On June 14, 2007, the Parliament of Sierra Leone passed three laws which made wife-beating illegal, allowed women to inherit property and protected women from forced marriage.[30] However, in 2014, 63% of women aged 15–49 still held the belief that male partners were justified in hitting and beating their female partners under certain circumstances.[31]

The 2007 Domestic Violence Act is rarely enforced as survivors are required to submit a medical report to the police. The majority of women in Sierra Leone cannot afford to pay the medical examination fee nor can they afford the cost of a lawyer to represent them.[32] Many women in the rural areas of Sierra Leone still are not aware that domestic violence is a crime or of their rights.[32]

In 2012, 10,000 Sierra Leonean men participated in a project called Husband School where they learned about gender equality, domestic violence, reproductive health, female genital mutilation and family planning.[32] Husband School is organized by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Fambul Initiative Network for Equality Sierra Leone (FINE-SL).[32] Attendance is enforced by local Paramount Chiefs.[32]

The adoption of Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act made 18 the legal age for marriage.[30] Prior to this, there was no minimum age for marriage nor was consent from both parties a prerequisite.[33] In rural Sierra Leone, it was not uncommon for girls under the age of 13 to be given in marriage to elderly men.[33] The law aims to protect women and girls from forced marriage as well as physical, sexual and financial abuse.[33]

In January 2023 the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act (GEWE) was signed into law in Sierra Leone. It mandates 30% of public and private positions be reserved for women (including in parliament), provides for increased workplace training opportunities for women, allows women fourteen weeks of maternity leave, punishes discrimination against women who seek access to financial services or resources, requires equal pay for women and men working in the same job, and requires yearly reviews of the GEWE’s implementation in public and private institutions.[34]

Reproductive rights in Sierra Leone

Women in Sierra Leone have extremely limited reproductive rights.[35] Until 2007, women and girls could still be given in marriage by their families without their consent.[33]

Sierra Leone has one of the world's highest maternal and infant mortality rates.[33][36]

Contraception is used by 16% of adult women in Sierra Leone and 7.8% of teenage girls.[36][37]

In 2013, Sierra Leone had the 7th highest teen pregnancy rate in the world.[35] 38% of Sierra Leonean women aged 20–24 had given birth to their first baby before the age of 18.[36][31] Teenage pregnancy is a major contributing factor to Sierra Leone's high maternal mortality rate as teenage mothers have a 40%-60% risk of dying in childbed.[36] Babies born to teenage mothers have a 50% higher risk of being stillborn or dying shortly after birth than babies born to mothers over the age of 20.[36]


Abortion is illegal in Sierra Leone under any circumstances.[38] The law banning abortion was passed in 1861, under the British colonial government.[39] In 2015, President Ernest Bai Koroma refused to sign the Safe Abortion Act, due to opposition from religious leaders, and said that the issue should be put to a referendum. Unsafe abortions account for 10% of maternal deaths.[38][39]

In 2022, the government backed a "risk-free motherhood" bill to legalise abortion.[40] The cabinet of President Julius Maada Bio unanimously supported the bill, which is slated to be submitted to Parliament.[39]

Female genital mutilation

Excluding Sierra Leone Creole women who do not practice or engage in female genital mutilation, 9 out of 10 girls and women in Sierra Leone have undergone female genital mutilation, often as part of the traditional Bundu or Bondu initiation ceremony into the Sande society.[31] Generally in Sierra Leone, where literacy levels among women is less than forty percent,[41] there is still a positive view of female genital mutilation.[31] Two-thirds of girls and women undergo the practice between ages 5 and 14.[31]

Women Pioneers of Sierra Leone

The names are placed in chronological order:





Timeline of women's rights in Sierra Leone


On June 14, 2007, the Parliament of Sierra Leone passed three laws which made wife-beating illegal, allowed women to inherit property and protected women from forced marriage.[30]


See also


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  2. ^ "Global Gender Gap Report 2022" (PDF). World Economic Forum. Retrieved 27 February 2023.
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  6. ^ Fyle, Magbaily C. (2005). Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone (New ed.). Scarecrow. p. 71. ISBN 978-0810853393.
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  8. ^ Simon Schama, Rough Crossings, (2006), p. 374,
  9. ^ a b c d French, Marilyn (2008). From Eve to Dawn, A History of Women in the World. Feminist Press at CUNY. p. 36. ISBN 978-1558615830.
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  12. ^ a b c Sundkler, Bengt; Christopher Steed (2000). A history of the Church in Africa. Cambridge University Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0521583428.
  13. ^ Lipschutz, Mark R.; R. Kent Rasmussen (1992). Dictionary of African Historical Biography. University of California Press. p. 253. ISBN 978-0520066113.
  14. ^ Olsen, Kristin (1994). Chronology of women's history. Greenwood. p. 165. ISBN 978-0313288036.
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  26. ^ a b Secco, Allessandra Dal (2007). Donna Pankhurst (ed.). Gendered Peace: Women's Struggles for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation (1st ed.). Routledge. pp. 81–82. ISBN 978-0415956482.
  27. ^ a b MacKenzie, Megan H. (2012). Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security, and Post-Conflict Development. ISBN 9780814771259. Retrieved 20 June 2018. ((cite book)): |website= ignored (help)
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