A relatively small country with just over 6 million people, Sierra Leone has been the focus of considerable public and policy attention because of the recent Ebola epidemic and, before that, the decade-long civil war. Given the concern with finding ways to ‘build Sierra Leone differently’ in the post-Ebola context, this paper considers some of the legacies of the country’s history.
It focuses on gender and the emergence of a dynamic network of actors that reveal not only the country’s history of violence but also its capacity for ‘rebuilding differently’ to foster resilience and create long-term social transformation. During the war, from 1991 to 2002, an estimated 50,000 people were killed and more than 500,000 were forced to flee their homes to escape violence. Statistics can never sufficiently capture the horror of the war, but they can indicate the extent to which multiple forms of violence permeated people’s lives. The legacy of violence is equally difficult to quantify but, as we found in our fieldwork in Sierra Leone from 2014 to 2015, it is woven into people’s everyday lives, and particularly in their sense of trust in each other and in formal and informal institutions.
This report focuses on one particularly pernicious form of violence – sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – as it is, and was, experienced by men and women. The impact of the war and the country’s transition to democracy surfaces in lesser known ways too; in this paper we describe how networks of actors emerged in refugee camps and coalesced around a shared struggle to transform harmful gender relations and end violence. Based on fieldwork with these actors, we outline some of the social, economic and infrastructural challenges they face in their work to collectively foster gender equality and end SGBV.
According to the activists we engaged with in Sierra Leone, the challenge of addressing SGBV has sometimes been exacerbated by a limited conception of development, which too often assumes that models for social and economic ‘progress’ can be imported and implanted into highly complex contexts. Far greater attention therefore needs to be paid to local specificity, to the effects of sexual and gender violence on all genders, and to the recommendations made by those people and organisations working to create sustained and positive change in these complex contexts. The findings of this study speak to this complexity and are organised, first, around the factors that underpin SGBV and, second, around the key actors working to transform harmful gender dynamics through collective action.