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Breaking the Cycle: Ending Gender Based Violence and Empowering Women in Sierra Leone

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Breaking the Cycle: Ending Gender Based Violence and Empowering Women in Sierra Leone Breaking the Cycle: Ending Gender Based Violence and Empowering Women in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, women and girls experience a lifecycle of Gender Based Violence (GBV). From childhood to adolescence, adulthood, and even as elders, GBV remains a significant barrier to women’s empowerment and their ability to thrive in society.  

What is the current situation? 

The most reported forms of GBV among women and girls between the ages of 15-49 are physical and sexual violence (62%) and spousal violence (61%). For women and girls living with disabilities the risks of violence are 2-3 times higher than their non-disabled counterparts. Survivors often lack financial resource to access legal and medical services, particularly in rural areas.

In the case of married women in Sierra Leone, incidences of GBV vary by region. Married women between the (ages of 15-49) in Port Loko of Western Sierra Leone experienced the highest rates (81%) of physical, sexual, or emotional violence while women in Kenema in the Eastern region experienced the lowest rate (35%).  

GBV unequally impacts women throughout their lifecycle.

The exposure to a lifecycle of GBV negatively affects economic and social outcomes of women and girls particularly in education, income, and leadership.

This cycle of GBV is interlinked with the high prevalence of female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), teenage pregnancy and early marriage. Sierra Leone has the fourth highest rate of FGM/C in Sub Saharan Africa (83% in 2019). At least 1 in 4 women have experienced both FGM/C and child marriage. These rates are compounded by high adolescent pregnancy (33%) and high maternal mortality leading to lower school attendance and higher incidences of drop out among girls, particularly in rural areas.

Life-cycle of Gender Based Violence in Sierra Leone

Life-cycle of Gender Based Violence in Sierra Leone

Women’s economic participation and earnings are strongly determined by whether she marries or bears a child during adolescence. Only 3% of women who had adolescent pregnancies worked in wage employment and they earned 25% less than women who did not. Furthermore, younger women are less likely to participate in the formal labor market due to the high incidences of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace.

Breaking the Cycle: Ending Gender Based Violence and Empowering Women in Sierra Leone
Musa Kargbo and her daughter Abibatu, Freetown Sierra Leone. Photo © Dominic Chavez / World Bank

Social norms drive the risk of GBV and hinder women’s participation in intra-household decision making. When it comes to decisions regarding FGM/C, marriage, sexual relations, contraceptive use, and reproductive health care, only 36% of women and girls are making their own informed decisions. Spousal and physical violence within relationships is often perceived as justified in Sierra Leonean society. Women who come forward to report instances of any form of violence often encounter severe criticism from their family and society. The legal system similarly does not prioritize cases of violence involving women or girls considering them more as family matters. 

Exogenous shocks tend to escalate GBV. Climate induced disasters, such as the 2017 mudslides in Freetown, increased the incidence of GBV in temporary shelters. Disease outbreaks (e.g., Ebola in 2014 and COVID-19 pandemic) or high-food inflation also expose young girls to the risks of sexual and physical abuse, early pregnancy, and maternal mortality.  

What is being done? 

The World Bank is supporting the Government of Sierra Leone to prevent and respond to GBV. The Bank is working with the Ministry of Gender and Children Affairs to adopt a portfolio-wide approach to mainstream GBV/SEA/SH prevention.  This includes managing the risk of GBV, addressing persistent social norms, and strengthening referral services through the following activities: 

  • Promoting cultural shifts in schools, sensitizing communities, and strengthening the GBV response system in the education sector (e.g., Sierra Leone Free Education Project)
  • Improving access to support and response systems for GBV survivors by mapping and evaluating the capacity of GBV service providers in the health sector (e.g., Quality Essential Health Services and Systems Support Project)
  • Enhancing safe infrastructure (street lighting, market facilities, bathrooms, GBV reporting mechanisms etc.) in the urban sector (e.g., Integrated and Resilient Urban Mobility Project)
  • Providing capacity building to implementing agencies of Bank financed operations across the portfolio on GBV/SEA/SH risk mitigation in line with the World Bank Environmental and Social Framework (ESF)

At the policy level, the World Bank financed Second Inclusive Development Policy Financing is supporting reforms of the Government’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act 2022 (GEWE) and the enactment of the new Employment Bill that will prohibit sexual harassment and non-discrimination in employment including equal pay. 

Given the complexity of the problem of GBV, solutions will require a multisectoral approach, shifts in social norms at all levels of society, and working together at scale. A Country Gender Action Plan (CGAP) is being developed to guide the Bank’s portfolio for greater social and economic inclusion of women and girls in Sierra Leone by addressing, among others, GBV as a development challenge and using the ESF as an entry point to expand policy dialogue and increase operational investments in GBV prevention and response. The CGAP priorities are aligned with the GEWE Act and government’s commitment to increase women’s participation and decision-making autonomy in public, private, and traditional institutions. It will be implemented collaboratively with the Government of Sierra Leone. 

Addressing GBV will help to expand and enable economic opportunities for all women in Sierra Leone – through improvements in educational attainment, health outcomes, labor force participation, earnings, and productivity – and engage them as leaders. 

*This blog received inputs from Audrey Sacks, Samuel Lule Demsah, Adaorah Chisom Oduah, and Jescinta Isimeme Izevbigie.


Nicolas Perrin

Practice Manager for Social Sustainability and Inclusion Global Practice in the West Africa Region at the World Bank

Kamakshi Mubarak

Senior Social Development Specialist at the World Bank

Pamela Chebiwott Tuiyott

Senior Social Development Specialist in the West Africa Region at the World Bank

Alema E. Siddiky

Consultant in the Social Sustainability and Inclusion Global Practice in the West Africa Region at the World Bank

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