7 March 2024 - Sierra Leone

Fighting Gender Inequality in Sierra Leone

Cousins Kuji*, 19 and Kpemeh*, 18 wear their Ending Child Marriage Champion t shirts in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

Cousins Kuji*, 19 and Kpemeh*, 18 wear their Ending Child Marriage Champion t shirts in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Shona Hamilton / Save the Children

Sierra Leone has a population of 8.4 million people and women play a central role in society. In rural and urban areas and in many households, it is still traditionally seen that women take care of the children including washing and dressing them, cleaning, and managing the house, preparing food and getting water and firewood.

With the average woman having just over 4 children in their lifetime, many spend their life juggling income generating activities alongside all the major family and household chores. 


Girls, like all children want to go to school and spend time with their friends, but early pregnancy and marriage forces young girls to mature into young women at a very early age.  And for many, especially those facing poverty, child marriage means girls and women never reach their full potential to be who they want to be, never being able to finish education and choose when and if they want children. Never choosing their own dreams and careers.

Instead of creating the next generation of empowered girls and women through education, many suffer, stuck in a cycle of poverty, health complications, violence and dependency.  As a result, child marriage in Sierra Leone affects 30% of girls before the age of 18.

Kuji*, 19, holds her 3 year old son at home in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Shona Hamilton / Save the Children

Kuji*, 19, holds her 3 year old son at home in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Shona Hamilton / Save the Children


However, many initiatives and projects are driving change in Sierra Leone which has become a country of hope to really shift and balance the gender inequality power dynamics.

Role models have a powerful impact across communities, districts and across the nation.  I remember hearing Dr Modupe O. Taiwo, Save the Children’s Programme Director at the 2023 Women Deliver conference, speak about the impressive Radical Inclusion Policy of 2021, which has finally ensured pregnant girls and adolescent mothers can go to school. It has also enhanced the justice system for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence as well as the more recent Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act 2022.

There are also many powerful community programmes, including one I recently visited in Tombo community, where I met Fatmata, a young woman who is a reminder of what women and girls can achieve when they are empowered and have equal opportunities.

It feels good to be able to speak up share your opinion and contribute to decisions around. When a girl is empowered she is limitless. She can stand and speak in front of elderly people and large crowds. She can help to build the community around her. It is true what they say; when you empower a woman, you have empowered the whole nation. Like madam Fatima Bio, she is making the impact she is making now because she is empowered. You can see the things she is doing for girls and women in the country. When there is a woman at the top, nothing will go wrong.

When a girl is not empowered, it is not good to see. She shrinks and hides herself because she does not have the self-confidence and belief. I have seen so many who have very serious or pressing things going on around them but are afraid to speak up. Some suffer in silence.’

She spoke about how she now feels able to speak whenever she wants, debating in school, at home and with her peers and how she now encourages her friends also to speak up and be the best version of themselves. Fatmata said:

Things changed for me when I realised that I can do things people once told me I cannot do or are for boys only. I do them now and get joy in doing them.

And this leadership needs to be at all levels. One of the most powerful advocates, as we heard from Fatmata, is Her Excellency, the First Lady of Sierra Leone.  I remember joining her a few years ago at one of the districts ‘hands off our girls’ campaign events. She has gone from strength to strength, being a role model and active voice for women and girls’ equal rights across the country.

From campaigning around GBV to menstrual health access to more recently driving up new momentum on ending child marriage, which is one of the most damaging experiences for young girls, locking girls and women into a cycle of poverty and a lack of choice.

Mr Kelfala, an Ending Child Marriage Project village champion (also a teacher) who supported Kpemeh*, 18 to stop her marriage in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

Mr Kelfala, an Ending Child Marriage Project village champion (also a teacher) who supported Kpemeh*, 18 to stop her marriage in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. Shona Hamilton / Save the Children


Child, early, and forced marriage is driven by gender inequality. Ending child marriage is one of the most important ways we can ensure girls and women are empowered. However, as we have seen from our own assessment, religious, financial, or cultural pressures often lead families to rush to lock the young girls into a child marriage.

Role models therefore can have a significant positive influence in empowering girls to see another option and the brightest hope for all girls and women to reach their full potential. Save the Children is committed to supporting initiatives that protect girls’ and women’s rights and contribute to their empowerment. 

On International Women’s Day we believe we must collectively advocate:

  • For laws to protect girls from early marriage and continuation of education.
  • To tackle and change harmful norms that prevent equality for women.
  • For investment in women’s rights, including equality in the workplace, leadership positions.
  • To ensure women can play an active role in every space, in our work, in education, politics, community and the economy.

A lot of work is still needed to give all women and girls an equal chance to make their dreams come true in Sierra Leone. However, with commitment and action from decision makers, community stakeholders, civil society organizations and women and children, this dream can one day become a reality.


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