Conflict Profile

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s civil war began in 1991, spanned 11 years, and left hundreds of thousands displaced and more than 50,000 dead. Yet the toll for women and girls was much higher than the war dead: Physicians for Human Rights estimates that during the conflict, between 215,000 and 257,000 of them were subjected to sexualized violence.

Thirty years earlier, in 1961, the nation had won independence from the United Kingdom and was being ruled by the All People’s Congress (APC), a government dominated by the Temne and Limba ethnic groups. According to Human Rights Watch, “corruption, nepotism, and fiscal mismanagement under the one-party rule of the APC led to the decay of all state institutions and the impoverishment of Sierra Leone’s population”—despite the country’s great wealth of diamonds, gold, and other minerals.

In 1984, a group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) formed with the aim of overthrowing the APC. Its invasion of Sierra Leone from Liberia in early 1991 triggered the civil war.  

As Human Rights Watch describes in its chilling report “‘We’ll Kill You if You Cry’: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict,” the RUF’s goal of saving Sierra Leone from the corrupt APC regime “quickly degenerated into a campaign of violence whose principal aim was to gain access to the country’s abundant diamond mines.” The rebels killed thousands of civilians, subjected many to horrors such as limb amputation, and forced many to join the RUF. They burned whole neighborhoods and they attacked thousands of women of all ages, ethnicities, and classes.

Kaz de Jong, a mental health care specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières and one of the authors of the organization’s report “Assessing Trauma in Sierra Leone,” told WMC’s Women Under Siege that there is no doubt sexualized violence was rampant. “It was done everywhere,” said de Jong. “In the jungle, in front of husbands and children, in the marketplace.”

A man walks past a sign that reads: "What will tomorrow be in Sierra Leone?" Though the country's civil war officially ended in 2002, fallout from sexualized violence continues to haunt its population. (Dara Kay Cohen)

According to the findings of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The main armed groups accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women and girls during the conflict were the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and the Westside Boys.” Dara Kay Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who has done in-depth research on sexualized violence in Sierra Leone, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that although the RUF are widely considered the biggest perpetrators, pro-government forces also raped and sexually violated civilians.

After intervention by world leaders, a 1999 peace agreement was signed in order to promote negotiations between the RUF and the government. Yet fighting, and attacks on women, continued.

In November 2000, the rebels and the government signed a ceasefire ensuring that both parties would begin disarming and that all child combatants and abductees would be released. On January 18, 2002, the civil war was officially declared over. However, sexualized violence continues in Sierra Leone post-conflict. A number of abducted women remain with the rebel commanders who took them as so-called “bush wives.” In an interview with WMC’s Women Under Siege, Chris Coulter, author of Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers, noted that it is difficult to discern to what level this was consensual.

“Many women found that they could not return home,” Coulter explained. They were no longer welcome as they had been away for many years and had children to the commanders; some were in loving relationships. Coulter said it is extremely difficult to assess the nature of these relationships because often only the first rape or “virgination” of a girl in Sierra Leone is traditionally understood as rape—whereas, after that, nonconsensual sex is widely considered acceptable behavior.

How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War

To create cohesion between members of an armed group: Cohen told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the “purpose of rape in Sierra Leone was mainly an internal one.” In a 2012 paper, she argues that it created a social bond between members of a given militia. Following gang rape, one fighter told her: “We would feel good and talk about it a lot, discuss it amongst ourselves, and laugh about it.” “It is a sign of celebration,” another ex-combatant said.

To prevent or control births: Rebels both forced impregnation to create offspring and damaged women and girls’ reproductive capacities to prevent births. As Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International report, Sierra Leone’s women were at times raped so roughly that they miscarried. PHR cites one witness’s account of the gruesome violence used to force abortions. Katmara B., a 13-year-old girl who was abducted, raped, and impregnated, recalls seeing what happened to two other women: “They tied the women down with their legs eagle-spread and took a sharpened stick and jabbed them inside their wombs until the babies came out on the sticks.”

Particularly dangerous and damaging childbearing practices were used on abducted girls and women. RUF rebels jumped on pregnant girls’ bellies in order to induce childbirth, as reported by Australian academic Augustine Park in her 2006 publication “Other Inhumane Acts: Forced Marriage, Girl Soldiers, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.” HRW reports that forced impregnation by rapists also occurred at times when the rebel forces felt the population numbers needed to be increased—action signaling that these women’s wombs were occupied and controlled by the rebels.

However, Cohen points out, such a strategy may not have been as relevant in a conflict such as Sierra Leone’s—one that, unlike, say, Bosnia’s, was not split down ethnic lines. Coulter, meanwhile, said that controlling births may have stemmed from a particular cultural tradition, one in which Sierra Leoneans view individual reproduction as symbolic of society’s reproduction at large. She explained that because rebels wanted to change the direction of their society, their attempt to control women’s reproductive capacities might be seen as symbolic of that goal.

To break up families and communities: As RUF and AFRC rebels controlled most of the countryside outside of Freetown, Human Rights Watch reports, women and girls living in these rebel-held areas were subjected to sexualized violence when the fighters went on patrol or simply sought to assert their dominance. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report states that “towns and villages were ravaged; crops and economic installations were destroyed; and a whole generation of Sierra Leoneans was displaced, brutalized and traumatized.”

To instill fear: Sexualized violence was a means for the rebel forces to ensure compliance, assert power, and propagate terror. According to Human Rights Watch, the rebels “sought complete domination by doing whatever they wanted with women including sexual acts that by having the additional element of violating cultural norms, violated not only the victim but also her family or the wider society.” To that end, as both HRW and Physicians for Human Rights report, many rapes took place in mosques, churches, and sacred places of initiation. Megan Mackenzie, a researcher at the University of Sydney and author of Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone, in an interview with WMC’s Women Under Siege, pointed to rape as an effective strategy in a conflict as lengthy as the Sierra Leonean Civil War. It is a tactic, she said, “that will continue to shock and cause harm over time.”

Patterns of Violence

  • In thousands of cases, women were abducted after being raped. According to Myriam Denov, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at McGill University, sexual enslavement in Sierra Leone generally entailed being abducted by the RUF, or other rebel factions such as ARFC and the West Side boys, and being held captive among their ranks for long periods of up to several years. Coulter, an expert on sex slaves, or “bush wives,” who has interviewed many women abducted during the conflict, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that there is a clear pattern. In more than a hundred interviews with former captives, Coulter heard the same narrative: Rebels abducted a woman, isolated her, repeatedly gang raped her, and finally “liberated” her via “marriage” to a particular commander. Despite the violence of the final stage, abductees often described the commander who took them as saving their lives. Some women felt “lucky” to be forced into sexual enslavement with one man, rather than “used” by many different men each day. Human Rights Watch reports that rebels changed wives frequently and could have more than one. Many women who were abducted also had “RUF” or “AFRC” carved onto their chests.
  • Denov reports that girls and women were also required to perform domestic and combat roles. As the title of Mackenzie’s book, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone, suggests, women and girls played a significant role in fighting. Many became soldiers under threat of a swifter death. Coulter’s book, Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers, also points out that women were “actively involved in the planning and execution of attacks, they fought, and many were killed and wounded.”
  • “At the Special Hearings on Women held in Freetown” after the conflict, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report states, “many women testified to the fact that in the course of their abduction and whilst living with the rebels they were given drugs every day. They also confirmed that drugs were on a daily basis added into their food.” Rebels would even make incisions on women’s bodies and rub drugs into their wounds.
  • According to HRW, child soldiers as young as 10 and 12 committed rape against women of all ages. Denov and co-author Richard Maclure have written that sex slaves were raped by a range of soldiers, including child soldiers and commanders—and even at times female officers.
  • Rebels often committed assaults during planned attacks on villages, which involved such abhorrent acts as inserting objects including firewood, pestles, and weapons such as machetes and rifles into the victim. MSF’s de Jong confirmed that, at times, fighters caused abortion by pushing sticks and other objects roughly into a woman’s vagina.
  • The rebel forces often violated sexual norms in order to violate not only the victim, but also her family and wider society. Some forced fathers to rape their own daughters, or to bear witness to violence against their children. Physicians for Human Rights has documented accounts of women who were raped in front of family members.
  • Human Rights Watch tells of a chilling method of psychological torture used against civilians: Rebels would force them to clap or sing in praise while watching family and friends being killed, raped, or mutilated. Other civilians were not allowed to display emotion while watching their relatives be killed or raped.


HRW states that sexualized violence was “committed on a much larger scale than the highly visible amputations for which Sierra Leone became notorious.” In a 2002 report, Physicians for Human Rights estimated that between 215,000 and 257,000 women were subjected to sexualized violence by predominantly rebel forces, with 40,000 to 64,000 of these survivors becoming internally displaced.

Denov and Maclure also state that thousands of women of “all ages, ethnic groups, and socio-economic classes” were abducted by rebel forces, treated as sexual slaves and repeatedly raped, and “required to perform multiple roles including domestic, espionage, and combat activities.” According to Denov, girls accounted for 30 percent of the RUF.

A Physicians for Human Rights study found that 33 percent of women and girls who reported sexualized violence also reported being abducted, while 15 percent reported sexual slavery. Nine percent reported forced marriage.

An unknown number of women and girls still remain with their rebel “husbands” despite the fact that the war officially ended in 2002.

As in other conflicts, de Jong notes that the shame and stigma attached to rape and sexual enslavement means that the number of girls and women who were subjected to such violence during the conflict may be higher than current estimates.

Cultural Gender Attitudes

Women and girls are subjected to structural discrimination by practice, custom, and law, according to Human Rights Watch, facing suppression in education, employment, and politics. Sexual exploitation has always been rampant in Sierra Leone, where economic options for women are limited; with the increased poverty caused by the war, sex has become even more of a commodity. As Human Rights Watch explains, “The concept of sexual violence as a crime is a very recent one in Sierra Leone’s patriarchal society. Only rape of a virgin is seen as a serious crime. Rape of a married woman or a non-virgin is often not considered a crime at all....”

According to Augustine Park of Carleton University, girls who have been sexually assaulted and their children are often rejected—when they return to their families, they are subject to stigma and mockery. Human Rights Watch says that under customary law, the perpetrator who has raped a girl is generally required to pay a substantial fine to the victim’s family as well as to the chief. The victim may also be forced to marry the perpetrator. As for what occurred post-conflict, Coulter and Mackenzie both spoke with WMC’s Women Under Siege about a range of women’s experiences, with some having been rejected and others accepted by their families. There is a “level of understanding and a level of silence” about what happened to these girls and women during the war, Mackenzie explained.

In an interview, Hazel McFerson of George Mason University explained that negative attitudes toward women are “built into the culture” in Sierra Leone. Many women also believe the idea that “if he loves you he will beat you.”

“Women have not yet claimed control of their bodies,” McFerson said, but indicated that change is coming slowly. For instance, there are plans afoot to employ more female police officers so that women have a culturally “safe” person to whom to report domestic violence.


In a study by Denov and Maclure, girls who had survived the war report the pain they endured. One interviewee describes the physical consequences of being raped at a young age:

“The more senior men had the power to say ‘this [girl] is mine, this one is mine.’ After they captured women, they would rape them. I was raped the moment they captured me at 12 years old … and I bled and bled. … I could not walk. The man who raped me later carried me on his back.”

Another interviewee in the same study gives a snapshot of how frequent the rapes were:

“We were used as sex slaves. Whenever they wanted to have sexual intercourse with us, they took us away forcefully and brought us back when they finished with us. Sometimes, other officers took us up as soon as we were being finished with and subsequent ones were particularly very painful. … I don’t even know who might have been the father of my child.”

Human Rights Watch reports the testimony of the testimony of R.T., who was about 16 when she was raped by 10 RUF rebels in the forest in January 1997:

“I was hiding in the bush with my parents and two older women when the RUF found our hiding place. I was the only young woman and the RUF accused me of having an SLA husband. I was still a virgin. I had only just started my periods and recently gone through secret society. There were ten rebels, including four child soldiers, armed with two RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and AK-47s. The rebels did not use their real names and wore ski masks so only their eyes were visible. The rebels said that they wanted to take me away. My mother pleaded with them, saying that I was her only child and to leave me with her. The rebels said that ‘If we do not take your daughter, we will either rape or kill her.’ The rebels ordered my parents and the two other women to move away. Then they told me to undress. I was raped by the ten rebels, one after the other. They lined up, waiting for their turn and watched while I was being raped vaginally and in my anus. One of the child combatants was about twelve years. The three other child soldiers were about fifteen. The rebels threatened to kill me if I cried.
My parents, who could hear what was happening, cried but could do nothing to protect me. I was bleeding a lot from my vagina and anus and was in so much pain. My mother washed me in warm water and salt but I bled for three days. I can no longer control my bladder or bowels as I was torn below… I had an operation in 2000 but it did not work. Before I got a catheter in 2001, I had no friends, as I smelled too bad. I am still in pain and have a problem with vaginal discharge. I also have nightmares and feel discouraged.”



The West Africa Fistula Foundation in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2007. Many women and girls are in need of surgery due to lack of medical access during the war. (Dara Kay Cohen)

  • Women who are victims of sexual enslavement may not, according to Denov and Maclure, be able to have normal sexual or child-bearing experiences with members of their own group, both because of the psychological and physical trauma of rape and the stigma attached to being raped by and bearing children of aggressors from another tribe.
  • Rape sometimes led to women bleeding to death or suffering from tears in the genital area. Cohen points out that fistula, however, was more often caused by women giving birth in the bush without medical attention than by rape itself.
  • “While many have been accepted by their families and communities,” a 2002 report by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found, “some girls are shunned and ridiculed, and many former sexual slaves are called ‘rebel wives.’ Many face harsh difficulties finding jobs, education, health care, and marriage partners, adding to their trauma.”
  • According to Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization found an “alarmingly high prevalence rate” of HIV among Sierra Leonean Army soldiers, with 42 percent of 176 soldiers and 82 civilians working for the army with suspicious symptoms testing positive for HIV. But as yet, experts have been unable to determine clearly whether HIV rates have risen overall due to rape in conflict. A recent epidemiological study found that there is “insufficient evidence” that HIV transmission increases either during conflict or in refugee populations. Published in The Lancet in 2007, the study analyzed data from Sierra Leone as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia, and Burundi. Researchers report that although rape may increase an individual survivor’s risk of contracting disease, there are not enough reliable data to show that systematic rape raises the overall prevalence of HIV in a given country. Previous studies may have been conducted poorly, or may have been skewed by geographical access restricted to urban areas with higher disease rates, according to the authors. More time-sensitive information needs to be gathered in countries experiencing conflict, they concluded. On the other hand, Cohen reports that diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea were prevalent during conflict.