‘They call me warrior’: The legacy of conflict and the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone.

Elizabeth Mills, Zahrah Nesbitt-Ahmed, Jennifer Diggins and Tamba David Mackieu


This paper assesses the factors that underpin sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Sierra Leone and outlines some of the challenges facing community-based initiatives addressing gender equality and SGBV. Findings suggest the war itself was an important catalyst of transformation on gender equality. The paper argues that SGBV is woven into people’s everyday lives, particularly in their sense of trust – in each other and in formal and informal institutions. It recommends long term support that addresses the network of structural inequalities affecting men and women.

This qualitative research draws on a range of data collected through 25 key informant interviews, two stakeholder mapping workshops, 60 structured interviews, two validation workshops, and 13 follow-up interviews. The majority of the interviews took place in Freetown and Moyamba.

Key findings

As in other conflict-affected settings, while evidence notes heightened incidences of SGBV post-war, discussions with activists suggest that the post-war context provided a uniquely fertile space in which to begin to deconstruct models of masculinity that perpetuated violence and were destructive for men as well as women.

  • The combination of national policy and civil society initiatives have contributed to a shift in the public discourse around gender equality and SGBV:
    • at the national level there have been a number of government laws and policy reforms, such as the enactment of three Gender Acts and a Sexual Offences Act, and a network of SGBV-related initiatives involving international actors have emerged.
    • at a local level, there has been the emergence of organisations like MAGE-SL working to promote gender justice, and the increased and sustained activism of women advocating for peace, democracy and good governance.
  • Respondents noted that experiences of violence in their own lives and the harmful nature of gender inequality for both men and women had motivated their decision to join a movement to change gender norms: men explained that they did not want the kind of responsibilities that were placed on them due to perceptions of masculinity, while women explained that they too would like to be able to take up opportunities for education and employment and expressed a strong desire to have their partners play a greater role in caring for their children and the home
  • Spatial limits of the law: respondents in Freetown emphasised the struggles faced by those in rural areas, like Moyamba, while respondents in Moyamba explained that the those passing laws in Freetown were doing so without ensuring sufficient resources are focused on enforcement. Culture, tradition and lack of access to information were also identified as reasons for spatial differences in accounts and approaches to gender inequality and violence.


However, to foster meaningful gender transformation needs long-term investment and support by international actors who recognise the structures underpinning inequality in post-conflict contexts. This includes:

  • Supporting local networks of civil society organisations to disseminate knowledge on key legislation relating to SGBV.
  • Supporting the Family Support Unit to enforce SGBV laws.
  • Disseminating Men’s Dialogue Groups as an example of best practice.
  • Fostering a more holistic understanding of SGBV beyond rape to include other forms such as abuse and harrassment  in public.
  • Working collectively to transform the structures and institutions that enable inequality to persist.


Mills, E., Nesbitt-Ahmed, Z., Diggins, J., & Mackieu, T.D. (2015). ‘They call me warrior’: The legacy of conflict and the struggle to end sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone. Institute of Development Studies (IDS) Evidence Report No 154.