Women and Post-Conflict Society in Sierra-Leone


McFerson, Hazel. 2011. "Women and Post-Conflict Society in Sierra-Leone." Journal of International Women’s Studies 12 (4): 127-147.

Author: Hazel McFerson


Gender inequality in Sierra Leone, after colonialism among the worst in Sub-Saharan Africa, has been heightened further by the civil war of 1992-2002—which was related in part to the struggle for control of "blood diamonds" but also to long-standing social and regional disparities, and to the collapse of formal institutions and widespread corruption. Sierra Leonean women are today among the most marginalized in the world, socially, economically and politically. However, there are differences among three groups: the better educated, comparatively richer "Krios" (descendants of the original freed slaves); relatively enlightened tribes; and the more traditional patriarchal tribes. The main route to improving the status of Sierra Leonean women is political empowerment. Some progress has been made since the civil war, post-conflict reconstruction programs and donor pressure are also opening up new opportunities for women progress, and there are hopes of significant electoral gains for women in the 2012 elections, inspired by the promising developments in neighboring post-conflict Liberia (which in 2005 elected Africa‘s first female president).  However, sustainable advancement depends on alliances whereby the better-educated urban women exert pressure for solving concrete problems of poorer women in exchange for their political support. Although such alliances are difficult, new grassroots women organizations have achieved positive initial results, which can be consolidated and expanded by appropriate partnership with international women NGOs.

Keywords: gender and development, post-conflict reconstruction, African women


McFerson begins her article with a summary of Sierra Leone’s history, explaining that the country gained its independence in 1961 and is now a constitutional republic. She explains that the country was ravaged by a civil war, which lasted from 1992-2002 and was fueled by competition over natural resources. In the following section, “Ethnicity and society,” McFerson presents the demographics of modern-day Sierra Leone, explaining that “the social structure in the country is in general both patriarchal and patrilineal” (35). Even in the post-colonial era, Sierra Leone has retained its chiefdom governance structure, which the British instituted. While these chiefs have historically repressed women, their increasing difficulty in maintaining control over the state may lead to their cooperation with women’s groups, which would afford women greater levels of political representation.

While the entire country suffers from extreme poverty, poverty levels are highest among Sierra Leonean women, women’s levels of education and literacy are drastically lower than those of men, and because of this lack of literacy, it is difficult for women to enter the official workforce.  Women in Sierra Leone also face extreme health hazards, particularly in childbirth, due to lack of medical resources and facilities. Barriers to women’s health are exacerbated by the traditional beliefs and practices, such as female genital mutilation, which afflicts the majority of Sierra Leonean women and is condoned by the country’s government.

The nation’s traditional, patiarchal culture is the primary reason for the subordinate status of women in Sierra Leone. While Sierra Leone’s Penal Code technically prohibits polygamy, it is allowed in customary marriages. Inheritance, divorce, and citizenship laws also favor men, denying women the economic rights of their male counterparts, and forced marriage is prevalent in Sierra Leonean society. Another issue confronting women in Sierra Leone is their limited property rights. Despite the gender bills passed in 2007, which strove to eradicate gender-based discrimination in ownership of land and inheritance, women still need the consent of their husbands in order to manage her property.  Widows continue to face inequality in their rights to own property; whereas a widower is entitled to the entirety of his deceased wife’s property, a widow may only obtain a portion of her husband’s property. While international institutions, such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank, have promoted economic land rights for women, these laws have not been enforced by the government of Sierra Leone and other African countries.

In her section, “The impact of the civil conflict on women and girls,” McFerson focuses on the 1992-2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, writing that it most directly affected the country’s women and girls, as they were routinely raped and kidnapped as sex slaves during the war. Resultantly, many of the women in Sierra Leone today are suffering from medical issues (due to unrelenting sexual abuse) in addition to social ostracization. The raping of women continues to be prevalent in Sierra Leone even in the post-conflict period, and domestic violence has become ingrained in the nation’s culture.

McFerson concludes her article by assessing the prospects for improving the status of women in Sierra Leone, arguing that the only path to gender equality is women’s political empowerment. While the laws granting women rights (i.e. Security Council Resolution 1325 and the 1995 Charter by the African Commission on Human Rights) have already been written, they much be instituted by the country’s government. She alludes to positive prospects for women’s empowerment, enforced by the 30% quota for women in political office; however, Sierra Leone is still lacking the unity of women’s movements necessary to propel efforts toward gender equality forward. Alliances must be forged between the educated, elite Krio women and other urban women in order to genuinely promote women’s rights. Ultimately, Sierra Leonean women’s poor access to international resources poses a barrier to the efficacy of women NGOs; thus international organizations must reach out to women’s initiatives in Sierra Leone to assist them in their effort to make their voices heard.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Civil Wars, Gender, Women, Peace Processes, Political Participation, Post-Conflict, Post-Conflict Reconstruction Regions: Africa, West Africa Countries: Sierra Leone

Year: 2011

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