Sierra Leone, officially the Republic of Sierra Leone, is a Constitutional Republic in West Africa. Since it was founded in 1787, 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. They experience high levels of poverty, violence, and exclusion. 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 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.
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.
After the destruction of the Province of Freedom in 1789 and the establishment of Freetown and the Colony of Sierra Leone in 1792, in the 1792 elections in Freetown, all heads of Nova Scotian Settler households could vote and one-third were ethnic African women.
The majority of the ancestors of the Sierra Leone Creole people were repatriated women who were of African American, Jamaican Maroon, Igbo, Bacongo, and Yoruba extraction. 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. This independence gave women the freedom to travel. As they were financially independent, they were able to divorce to improve their lives economically.
From 1830, the women in Sierra Leone were well known for their trading of non-slave-related items. A notable Liberated African woman trader of the period was Betsy Carew who had married a butcher, Thomas, and sold meat to the army.
The Creole female traders were Christian. Creole women traded along the entirety of the West Coast expanding both their trade and spreading the Christian religion. However, by 1900 European companies began to dominate trade and the Creoles moved to other professions such as medicine and teaching.
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. 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.
T J. Alldridge the first commissioner of Sierra Leone reported signing peace treaties with two women chiefs in 1889.
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.: 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.: 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.: 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. In 1952 she founded the Sierra Leone Women's Movement as well as a newspaper. She founded the Eleanor Roosevelt Preparatory School for Girls and funded it from the proceeds of her quarrying business.
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. She was a legal adviser to the British High Commission in Freetown and was considered a champion of women's rights.
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.
Two female candidates stood for parliamentary seats in 1967: Yema Catherine Williams and Julie Keturah Kayode.
In the 1973 general election Nancy Steele and Ester Lily Coker stood for election as independent candidates. By now Sierra Leone had become a one-party state and their campaigns were unsuccessful.
1978 saw Nancy Steele as the sole woman to stand for parliament in the general election.
1970 - 1990
In 1970, out of the 81 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone, 10 were led by women.
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.
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.
2000 - present
On June 14, 2007, the Parliament of Sierra Leone passed three laws which made wife-beating illegal, allowing women to inherit property and to protect women from forced marriage. 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.
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. Many women in the rural areas of Sierra Leone still are not aware that domestic violence is a crime or of their rights.
The adoption of Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act made 18 the legal age for marriage. Prior to this, there was no minimum age for marriage nor was consent from both parties a prerequisite. In rural Sierra Leone, it was not uncommon for girls under the age of 13 to be given in marriage to elderly men. The law aims to protect women and girls from forced marriage as well as physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Reproductive rights in Sierra Leone
Women in Sierra Leone have extremely limited reproductive rights. Until 2007, women and girls could still be given in marriage by their families without their consent.
Sierra Leone has one of the world's highest maternal and infant mortality rates.
Contraception is used by 16% of adult women in Sierra Leone and 7.8% of teenage girls.
In 2013, Sierra Leone had the 7th highest teen pregnancy rate in the world. 38% of Sierra Leonean women aged 20–24 had given birth to their first baby before the age of 18. 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. 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.
Abortion is illegal in Sierra Leone under any circumstances. President Ernest Bai Koroma refused to sign the 2015 Safe Abortion Act. Unsafe abortions account for 10% of maternal deaths.
First woman president of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA): Isha Johansen 2013.
Timeline of women's rights in Sierra Leone
Constance Cummings-John becomes the first woman in Sierra Leone and all of Africa to be elected to a municipal council.
Patience Richards (SLPP), Constance Cummings-John(SLPP), Ellen G.A.Caulker of the United Sierra Leone People's Party (UPP) and Mrs. C.T.Williams are the first women in Sierra Leone to run for parliament.
Domestic violence is criminalized with the adoption of the Domestic Violence Act.
With the adoption of Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorce Act, 18 became the legal age for marriage and requires the consent of both spouses. All marriages must be registered and both spouses may acquire property. Gifts, dowries, and payments are non-refundable.
The Devolution of Estate Act is signed in to law. The estate of a deceased spouse must be equally distributed between their spouse and children. The expulsion of widows from their homes after the death of the husband is criminalized.
^"Table 4: Gender Inequality Index". United Nations Development Programme. Retrieved 7 November 2014.
^"The Global Gender Gap Report 2018" (PDF). World Economic Forum. pp. 10–11.
^Nill, Susanne (2011). Can Security Sector Reform Contribute to the Reduction of Gender-Based Violence?. GRIN. p. 54. ISBN 978-3640917655.
^ abCastillejo, Clare (June 2009). "Women's Political Participation and Influence in Sierra Leone" (PDF). Retrieved 18 June 2018.
^Hafkin, Nancy Jane (1976). Edna G. Bay (ed.). Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. Stanford University Press. p. 218. ISBN 978-0804710114.
^Fyle, Magbaily C. (2005). Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone (New ed.). Scarecrow. p. 71. ISBN 978-0810853393.
^Caulker, Tcho Mbaimba (2008). The African-British long eighteenth century and Sierra Leone: A reading of diplomatic treaties, economic and anthropological discourse, and Syl Cheney-Coker's "The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar". Michigan State University. p. 30. ISBN 9780549617914. ProQuest 304593333.