Caritas Freetown Empowering Women to Tame Gender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone

Mary Brima, a beneficiary of the Caritas Freetown -Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) project for victims of Sexual and Gender-Based violence during an interview with ACI Africa. Credit: Caritas Freetown

Two years ago, Mary Brima decided to leave her husband who had abused her for seven years. It was her second marriage after her husband and her only son were killed in the 11-year Sierra Leonean civil war that ended in 2002.

Mary was among the 15,900 people that the government had resettled in Grafton outside Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, in 1991 after they were displaced by rebels in the provinces. Those displaced had camped in stadiums and in other public places in Freetown as war swept across the entire West African country.

In Grafton, the government had created 21 communities to host different kinds of people who had been displaced by violence. These included the amputees, those who had become visually impaired, and those who had experienced sexual abuse, among others.

Mary was resettled in New Camp, a community that hosted the aged, widows and widowers. It was here that she met her new partner and the two moved in together and even started expanding their house, intending to rent out part of it for income. On three occasions, her husband forced her to take loans, which they used to construct their house. Several other times, he stole from her and led to the collapse of her charcoal selling business.

But it was not until the man hit her on the head, when she confronted him for having extramarital affairs, that Mary decided to pack her bags and to leave. To date, she has remained deaf in her left ear from the blow she received from her husband. 


“I went to the hospital and they told me that I have a burst eardrum. That is why I can’t hear in this ear,” Mary told ACI Africa, adding that her efforts to compel her estranged partner to help in repaying the loans she was forced to take have been futile. Meanwhile, the abusive partner remarried and has been left to enjoy the proceeds from the house they built using the loans.

Mary was attending a November 10 meeting of Grafton New Camp Women Group when ACI Africa met her. Few other members were attending the meeting of women who have undergone abuse in their homes and are seeking to liberate themselves through economic empowerment. Other members were attending the funeral ceremony of Sento Bangura, a member of the group who had been found sexually molested and killed.

Marie Sesay, the Coordinator of Caritas Freetown Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) projects in New Camp condemned what she referred to as continued abuse of women at the camp, noting that reports of domestic violence and sexual abuse were high in the community.

She explained to ACI Africa that Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) in Grafton dates back to the years of Sierra Leone’s civil war, when the government created the resettlement area and left the IDPs to their devices.

“As the war ended, Grafton was the main resettlement camp. The government brought us here and abandoned us without food, water, or any resettlement package whatsoever,” Sesay told ACI Africa.

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She added, “Families were left to fend for themselves. Prostitution became commonplace. The main clients were the soldiers that had been posted here to restore our peace. So, women and even young girls would sell their bodies to the soldiers for simple things like food and water.”

“Other men in the camp also started soliciting for sexual favors from the women and girls. They felt that it was their right to receive the favors and those who refused were raped. This way, sexual violence became a rooted practice in our community,” Sesay recounted.

The community social worker who has converted one of the rooms in her house into a safe house for abused women and girls highlighted various cases of abandonment at the camp, noting that women were suffering what she referred to as “economic abuse” at the hands of their spouses, and had been left to fend for their families by themselves. 

Many women, she said, had still carried on with prostitution to provide for their families.

“We have received many cases of little girls who were sexually abused, others killed, when their mothers left them in their houses to go out and do prostitution. Some of the women and girls coming from selling their bodies at night are often attacked, mugged and raped,” she narrated.


She said that authorities are always slow in dealing with cases of abuse and always solicit for bribes from those seeking justice.

“Traditional leaders are also a major setback in our activities. They are always seeking to arbitrate the SGBV matters and they hardly deliver justice,” she said, and added, “One of our cases at the moment is that of a Muslim Cleric who has been sexually assaulting an eight-year-old girl. When she spoke out, everyone was against her, warning her not to speak ill of the Cleric. We have her at our safe house.”

At the meeting that was organized at Sesay’s home, Sylvia Wright, a Paralegal officer working with Caritas Freetown-JPC said that the justice department of the development arm of the Catholic Church in Freetown started journeying with women in New Camp in 2017.

“We realized that cases of SGBV in this part of Sierra Leone were too high and they stemmed from the civil war. The government was not doing anything to help and the women were left to fight for themselves,” Ms. Wright said.

Activities of Caritas Freetown-JPC department in New Camp include advocacy against SGBV, sensitization of women and girls on their rights and training of community workers on how to handle cases of abuse.

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Women in the community are also supported to start farming, which is the main economic activity in New Camp.

“Caritas has trained us on growing peanuts, which we eat and sell the surplus to make some money. They have also brought experts who trained us on many farming issues, including producing organic fertilizers to grow organic food,” Sesay said, adding that women at the camp have also been taking through nutrition lessons and how they can eat affordable balanced diets to give birth to healthy babies.

In Grafton alone, Caritas Freetown-JPC works with 12 other camps with targeted SGBV prevention and mitigation activities, Ms. Wright said. 

She added, “Here, we support women in farming because that is their main economic activity. There are places where we support women to start small businesses and to grow them. Here in New Camp, we bring women seeds and tools and take them through training. We come here every two weeks to check on them. We have also helped them to open bank accounts and to save as much as possible to grow their farming ventures.”

The women have also been trained on how to handle SGBV cases, the Paralegal officer said, and added, “Now, women like Sesay and many others know which cases of abuse they can handle and which to refer to authorities. We have seen them follow up on many cases that saw victims get justice.”

In a past interview with ACI Africa, Eliza Sillah, the Programs Manager of Caritas Freetown-JPC said that violence in many communities experiencing high cases of SGBV starts from families, “sometimes because of the dependency of women on their husbands.”

“We therefore empower these women economically and increase their decision-making power in the families,” Eliza said during the November 3 interview, and added, “Some women have said that after our intervention, their husbands now borrow money from them and have developed more respect for them.” 

Activities of Caritas Freetown-JPC include legal education, advocacy, empowerment of marginalized girls and vulnerable women, response to SGBV, violence prevention, and capacity building, among others.

Caritas Freetown-JPC’s clinics are fully equipped with social workers, paralegals and other qualified staff to handle the community challenges. Cases that are difficult to handle are referred to authorities.

The women are equipped with skills to practice farming and to engage in businesses. Those willing to engage in businesses are given loans, Eliza said.

She added, “Before, we gave them money to invest in businesses but they would use it on other needs that they thought were more pressing. Then we changed strategy and we now accompany each woman from the identifying business they want to engage in, taking them for training and even going with them to the market to buy the things they wish to sell. This way, they don’t divert the money meant for business to other uses.”

“We have been accompanying these women in their businesses and from our latest analysis, we were happy to note that 98 percent of women we supported with small businesses are still doing it, and most of them have massively expanded their businesses,” Eliza said, adding that the women have also been encouraged to start saving every month.

She said that apart from economic empowerment, women also develop social cohesion as they interact in their saving and investments groups.

Caritas Freetown-JPC has also played an advocacy role that has seen a law that prohibited women from purchasing apartments “unless they were accompanied by a male partner” reviewed. This, Eliza said, has seen many women get empowered to buy and own apartments by themselves.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.