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The Impact of Inequality: Why so Many Women are in Prison

Poverty and illiteracy- coupled with police abuse and systemic discrimination- are the root causes for the incarceration of most women in Sierra Leone.


  • In a survey of Salone's incarcerated women in 2020, 71% said that before going to prison they could afford only one or two meals per day. Most days they went hungry in order to feed their children.

  • Half had been the main earners of their households

  • 88% were taking care of at least one child before their arrests. 83% of the children were minors at the time of arrest. Half of those women also had a foster child- a men or galpikin

  • 45% had never attended school and were illiterate- an additional 12% said they were functionally illiterate but could write their name for example

  • 72% experienced GBV from their partner or spouse

  • Half of women said they feared for their safety post- release due to stigma and retaliation

  • Their court proceedings were conducted in English with no translator present, even though the majority of the women did not understand or speak English- many did not speak Krio either.

  • Bail conditions were impossible to meet due to lack of ownership of property

  • 2/3 of the women in prison were there pre-trial due to excessive bail conditions

  • Attorneys are not provided for most women

  • The conditions of detention regarding medical, education and mental health standards were not met. Most of women surveyed said they had not heard from or seen their children while incarcerated.

  • Almost 10% of women had no idea where their children were or if they were even alive. [See Women Wahala Na Prison, written by Isabella Cordua, Human Rights Researcher and Consultant at the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. published Aug, 2020.]

Although women represent a small minority of the global prison population, their imprisonment has been growing worldwide over the last two decades. In response, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has said, “much more remains to be done to identify and address the pathways to women’s incarceration; to establish better, safer and more gender sensitive conditions for women prisoners; to ameliorate the negative consequences of women’s imprisonment; and to reduce the numbers of women in prison around the world.”

Almost all of the women in prison in Sierra Leone are poor and are responsible for minor children. Most are jailed for petty offenses including - stealing small sums of money to provide for their families and/or non-payment of a private debt. These petty offenses remain on the books in Sierra Leone and often result in women's imprisonment. The most common petty offenses are ‘fraudulent conversion’ and ‘obtaining money by false pretense’. They are based on old and vague legal statutes that criminalize private debts often between family members. Effectively, criminalizing poverty- which disproportionally effects women and their children.

Domestic loitering laws, criminalize a person for being somewhere without giving an 'acceptable' account of why they are there. These are used to criminalize women suspected of engaging in sex work. Like sex workers everywhere, women in Sierra Leone are at an increased risk of suffering violence, sexual abuse and theft at the hands of police when arrested. Contrary to international standards, there are currently no provisions for noncustodial sentences under Sierra Leonean law aside from excessively high fines.

In order to satisfy it's international obligations and it's own stated commitment to establishing a more progressive and equitable legal system-

  • Sierra Leone must decriminalize petty offenses including loitering, fraudulent conversion and obtaining goods or money by false pretenses

  • Establish alternative dispute resolution or civil summons to resolve minor crimes and personal disputes without incarceration

  • Develop community based non-custodial measures that address the root causes of women's contact with the law.

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