Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, which is punishable by up to 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 were greatly underreported, and indictments were rare, especially in rural areas. A reluctance to use the judicial system on the part of both victims and law enforcement, combined with women’s lack of income and economic independence, helped perpetuate violence against women and impunity for offenders. Despite the establishment of family support units and the existence of applicable legislation, reports of rapes, especially involving child victims, steadily increased. NGOs reported a rise in rape and sexual violence, especially against girls, during school closures driven by the Ebola epidemic.
Rape cases frequently were settled out of court or did not make it to trial because of inefficiencies and corruption in the judicial system. Most legal advisors assigned to prosecute rape cases had only three weeks’ training in this type of case and could not compete against well trained defense lawyers. Most perpetrators were known to their victims and included teachers, family friends, relatives, traditional leaders, and neighbors.
Medical and psychological services for rape victims were limited. Authorities historically required victims to obtain a medical report for the filing of charges, examinations, reports, and court appearances, and most government doctors charged 10,000 to 70,000 leones ($1.85 to $13.00), fees that were prohibitively expensive for most victims. The International Rescue Committee ran Rainbo centers in Freetown, Kenema, and Koidu 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 of up to five million leones ($943) and up to two years in prison. Nevertheless, violent acts against women, especially wife beating and spousal rape, were common and often surrounded by a culture of silence. Between January and November, the Family Support Unit (FSU), a division of the SLP, reported 825 cases of sexual violence against women. The FSU assists victims of sexual assault and harassment. As of December no information was available on domestic violence cases. Police were unlikely to intervene in domestic disputes except in cases involving serious injury or death. The SLP used mediation as its primary tool for handling domestic violence. As of November authorities reported police had not received training during the year to address the needs of victims of sexual violence. Don Bosco Fambul operated a hotline and psychosocial services for victims of sexual violence. NGOs observed in many cases women withdrew rape or other complaints of violence due to social stigma, fear of retaliation, or acceptance of payment in lieu of pressing charges. The lack of convictions resulted in a high degree of impunity for rape and other violence. Awareness of the law resulted in an increase in reporting of cases in urban areas; most human rights organizations noted domestic violence continued to be most prevalent and underreported in the Northern Province.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was a problem, with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reporting in 2014 that nine of 10 women and girls had undergone the procedure and 13 percent of girls under age 14 underwent the procedure during 2013. Through the State of Public Health Emergency issued in August 2014 and by-laws issued in 2015 to control the spread of Ebola, the government continued to prohibit the activities of secret societies, including placing a moratorium on practicing FGM/C on women and girls. On August 19, Chief Executive Officer of the National Ebola Response Center Palo Conteh reiterated the ban on secret society activities had not been lifted and anyone violating the ban would “face the full force of the law.” Through December there was anecdotal information FGM/C was being performed in some remote areas, despite the government moratorium. UN agencies and local and international NGOs sought to address cultural attitudes that promoted FGM/C and raise awareness about long-term health consequences to women who had undergone the procedure.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment. 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. As of December the FSU reported 15 cases of sexual harassment. No reliable data was available on the prevalence of sexual harassment, but it was thought to be widespread and greatly underreported.
Reproductive Rights: According to the UN Population Fund, the maternal mortality rate was approximately 1,100 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, with only 61 percent of births being attended by skilled health professionals between 2006 and 2013. 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 seeking prenatal care and giving birth in medical facilities increased. Nonetheless, the program continued to be plagued with problems delivering drugs and other supplies to rural areas.
Women and men generally were free to decide responsibly the timing, number, and spacing of their children, manage their reproductive health and have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Adolescent pregnancy among girls and women aged 15 to 19 was reported to be 125 per 1,000 between 1999 and 2012. Many parents refused contraceptives for their sexually active teenage children because of a misunderstanding that contraceptives would prevent pregnancy later in life. Overall only 35 percent of the demand for contraception was met, with only 14 percent of girls and women ages 15-49 using modern contraception. 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) and 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.
Before the Ebola outbreak in May 2014 and throughout 2015, the proportion of women who gave birth in hospitals and in “peripheral health units,” located primarily in rural areas, increased. Few hospitals, however, 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 post-natal care as priorities.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for men and women under family, labor, property, and inheritance laws. 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 law does not mandate equal remuneration for equal work or prohibit 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.
Women faced widespread legal and 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, but many women in the provinces, which are governed by customary laws that vary from chiefdom to chiefdom, did not.
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.
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. According to a 2008 government survey, 66 percent of women had never attended school, compared with 50 percent of men. 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. Further discrimination occurred in access to credit, equal pay for similar work, and the ownership and management of a business.
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 enter politics as candidates for mayoral positions and local councils.