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Key findings
  • In Sierra Leone, women are less likely than men to have post-secondary education (7% vs. 20%) and more likely to have no formal schooling at all (46% vs. 34%).
  • Women are less likely than men to own assets such as a radio (38% vs. 70%), a mobile phone (58% vs. 78%), and a bank account (9% vs. 25%).
  • More than three-fourths (78%) of Sierra Leoneans say women should have the same rights as men to own and inherit land.
  • More than seven in 10 citizens (71%) say women should have the same chance as men of being elected to public office.
  • Three-fourths (76%) of Sierra Leoneans say the government is doing “fairly well” or “very well” in promoting equal rights and opportunities for women, but almost two- thirds (64%) want it to do more.

Believers in equal rights for women are celebrating Sierra Leone’s just-passed Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) Act, which mandates equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, financial inclusion, and a 30% quota of women in government appointments and private institutions with more than 25 employees (AYV News, 2022).

The act is a major step for Sierra Leone, where women make up only 12.3% of parliamentarians (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2022), and complements the Public Elections Act passed in September (Government of Sierra Leone, 2022a), which requires one-third of political party nominations for elective positions to be women. Noting that nominations do not necessarily translate into elected positions, advocacy organisations are calling for the country to adopt a “zipper” or “zebra” system of party lists alternating by gender (Institute for Governance Reform, 50/50 Group, and Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, 2022).

Another law passed in November, the Political Parties Act, replaces the Political Parties Registration Commission with the Political Parties Regulation Commission, whose enhanced regulatory powers includes enforcement of political inclusion mechanisms; parties that fail to comply with quota provisions can be penalised (Government of Sierra Leone, 2022b).

These acts are the latest in a series of government efforts since Julius Maada Bio made gender equality a priority when he became president in 2018. His Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) campaign promise of free quality school education became policy in 2018. The government revoked a ban on pregnant girls’ attending school in 2020 (BBC, 2020) and developed a radical inclusion policy designed to increase education access to the most vulnerable and marginalised. These efforts are yielding fruit: Gender disparities in education access have been eliminated at the primary level, though inequities remain at the secondary and tertiary levels (Government of Sierra Leone, 2022c). And since 2020, the country has consistently passed the Millennium Challenge Corporation (2022) indicator on investing in people in terms of primary education expenditures and girls’ primary education completion rate.

The revised Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2019 strengthened penalties for crimes against women and girls (Mitchell, 2020; M’Cormack-Hale & Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny, 2021). A new Customary Land Rights Act, passed in August 2022, contains a dedicated gender equality section that eliminates discrimination in customary land acquisition, providing women equal rights with men to “hold, use, inherit, succeed to or deal with land” (Government of Sierra Leone, 2022d).

Despite these achievements, Sierra Leone still lags when it comes to gender equality, placing 109th out of 146 countries on the Global Gender Gap Index (World Economic Forum, 2022). Attention has focused on the Constitution. Although it enshrines gender equality, critics argue that its recognition of customary law also has the effect of protecting discriminatory practices in marriage/divorce, land tenure, and inheritance. Recommendations by the government-commissioned Constitutional Review Committee (2016) included components addressing gender inequality, but beyond a government white paper in January 2022, little progress has been made toward implementing them.

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9 (2021/2022) questionnaire to explore Sierra Leoneans’ experiences and perceptions related to gender. (For findings on gender-based violence, see M’Cormack-Hale & Twum, 2022.)

Findings show that women continue to trail men in education and control of assets. Most citizens say women should have the same rights as men to own and inherit land and to be elected to public office, but support for gender equality in hiring is weaker, particularly among men.

While the government gets high marks for its efforts to promote equal rights and opportunities for women, a majority of Sierra Leoneans want it to do more.

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale is the co-national investigator for Sierra Leone.

Maame Akua Amoah Twum

Maame is the communications coordinator for North and Anglophone West Africa at Afrobarometer