We support women and girls in war and crisis zones

West Afrika: Mano River Region

Women’s rights in West Africa: Two decades of war. The situation in Liberia and Sierra Leone is critical. We are supporting women there.

A long row of women at a demonstration in Liberia. They are standing side-by-side, their mouths are covered with a black cloth and they are holding candles.

Sexualised violence in conflict and post-conflict situations

Armed conflict has prevailed in the West African Mano River region for two decades, and although the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone have ended, the political situation is still fragile. Deep divisions exist between government and society. Every election is dominated by the fear of new violence. Poor governance, a lack of constitutionality, corruption, and the dependence on unjust global economic and development relationships: all of this is an obstacle to lasting transformation in the region. One legacy of the conflicts is the high level of sexualised violence. Thousands of women and girls were raped during the civil wars, and gender-based violence and structural discrimination are still firmly anchored in society and institutions today.

Eight facts about women's rights in West Africa

1. Sexualised wartime violence during the civil wars

During the civil wars in Liberia from 1989 to 2003, between 60 and 70 per cent of all women and girls in the country were raped. In the country itself, the perpetrators have never been brought to justice. For decades, Liberian civil society has been calling for justice for the crimes committed during the civil war era, but the Liberian governments have failed to meet these demands. The first trial of a former rebel leader took place in Switzerland. In June 2021, a Swiss Federal Criminal Court sentenced him to 20 years in jail.

2. Sexualised violence in so-called ”peacetime“

In 2021, sexualised violence was the most commonly reported major crime in Liberia. Of all violent crimes, 70 per cent are rapes and so-called ”domestic violence“. Almost all of the survivors are women, and 80 per cent are minors. Civil society protests against sexualised violence and impunity led the governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia to declare states of national emergency in 2019 and 2020 and establish action plans to combat sexualised violence.

3. Impunity for the mostly male perpetrators

In Liberia in 2016, a sentence was passed in only some 2 per cent of all reported cases of rape, and in Sierra Leone it was only one per cent. Sexualised violence is a criminal offence and is being taken to court more often, but the generally male perpetrators are rarely sentenced, due to administrative inefficiency and corruption. Fear of stigmatisation and retaliation also mean that many survivors do not report the crimes. Only some three per cent of affected women and girls have access to safe houses.

4. Ebola and Covid-19: Sexualised violence increases during crises

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, there was a 50 per cent increase in teenage pregnancies in Sierra Leone. Causes for this included a lack of protection, more rapes, and survival prostitution. In the Covid-19 pandemic the situation repeated itself: in the first six months of the pandemic in 2020, Liberia recorded more than 1,000 cases of sexualised and gender-based violence.

Portrait of Caroline Bowah direktor of Medica Liberia

“As women’s rights activists we will continue to make our voice heard in order to ensure that appropriate support structures for women and girls are made available – in particular during the pandemic.”

Caroline Bowah, Director of medica Liberia from 2013 to 2021

5. Female genital cutting widespread

Female genital cutting, also referred to as mutilation (FGM), is accepted as a common practice and has general public support in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. In Liberia about one half of the female population is affected, in Ivory Coast more than one third. In Sierra Leone nine out of ten girls are cut. West African activists have been campaigning against this traditional practice for years, calling for prohibitions and education of the whole population on the issue.

6. Many girls cannot read or write

The literacy rate of women and girls over 15 in Sierra Leone is 35 per cent, compared to 52 per cent for men. In Liberia the figures are 34 per cent for women and 63 per cent for men. Some 20 per cent of Liberian schoolgirls are subjected to sexualised violence and exploitation by their teachers.

7. Reproductive health and teenage pregnancies

Liberia has an alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy, with estimates of three out of ten Liberian girls becoming unintentionally pregnant before they turn 18. About 60 per cent of women and girls between the age of 15 and 49 have no satisfactory access to family planning.

8. Very little participation of women in political processes

The West African women's movement looks back on a long history: they played a significant part in the anti-colonial resistance, in the struggles for equal rights, and in the historical protests of peace activists that led to the end of the Liberian civil war and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president. However, although women play a leading role in peacebuilding and democratisation, their political participation is still very restricted. In the parliaments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, the proportions of women are only about 11 to 14 per cent.

In the run-up to the 2023 elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone, reforms of electoral legislation was initiated to introduce quotas for women, following the example of other West African countries (such as Senegal). However, their implementation remains uncertain. Women's rights organisations also expect hostility and violence against female candidates during the elections.

(Status of: 2022)

Facts & figures from our practical work

The sensitising and awareness- raising actions within the SASA! project enabled medica Liberia to reach 6000 people in south-east Liberia.
In its safe space, the organisation Women Aid from Liberia was able to offer more than 60 vulnerable women and girls secure accommoda- tion and further support measures.
The forum Against Harmful Practices in Sierra Leone worked at 15 schools with more than 150 pupils, and 75 teachers, to initiate a dialogue on the issues of female genital cutting and gender-specific violence.

Partner organisations:

  • Liberia: ADWANGA, medica Liberia, Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative, Women Aid
  • Sierra Leone: AdvocAid, Choices and Voices Foundation for Women and Girls, Forum Against Harmful Practices, Girl 2 Girl Empowerment Movement, Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society
  • Ivory Coast: CEFCI

Project priorities:

  • Prevention of violence by means of empowerment, awareness-raising and advocacy work
  • Stress- and trauma-sensitive support for women affected by violence
  • Support for feminist organisations and networks

Funding and funders:

  • German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
  • KfW (the German development bank)/ Welthungerhilfe
  • Pro Victimis Foundation
  • Medicor Foundation
  • Comic Relief
  • Own resources

Source: Annual Report 2021

The logo of the women's rights organisation medica mondiale can be seen in the background with Arabic characters underneath. On the right in front of it is the face of a friendly smiling woman. It is legal advisor Jihan Abas Mohammed.
The logo of the women's rights organisation medica mondiale can be seen in the background with Arabic characters underneath. On the right in front of it is the face of a friendly smiling woman. It is legal advisor Jihan Abas Mohammed.
Our partner organisations
Overview of all partner organisations of medica mondiale

Focal points of work

1. Prevention of sexualised violence

In order to prevent sexualised and gender-based violence, our partner organisations work to try and convince government and civil society to assume responsibility for the protection of women and girls. At the same time, the women’s rights organisations empower women and girls to protect themselves and demand their rights.

Liberia: Political commitment to protection and prevention

In order to provide the impulse for change in society, our partner organisations are active at the political level. In Liberia, medica Liberia works together with numerous women’s rights organisations and with the Women’s and Justice Ministries in a National Task force on gender-based violence, seeking to improve the protection and prevention measures.

Liberia: Active commitment to equal rights and participation

medica Liberia was involved in the development of Domestic Violence Act, as well as the National Action Plan to implement UN Resolution 1325, which should ensure equal participation of women in peace and security policy initiatives.

Liberia: Societal education on the prevention of violence

In order to encourage the social surroundings of women to accept responsibility for protecting women, medica Liberia organises events in market places, schools and hospital wards to raise awareness of women’s rights and the issue of sexualised violence. In the radio programme “Know your rights”, the legal counsellors from medica Liberia answer questions on land issues and maintenance payments for women. They target men as well, encouraging them to become “change agents” working for a better position of women and girls.

Liberia: Together against harassment of schoolgirls

In the wake of large numbers of schoolgirls being subjected to sexualised harassment, in 2018 medica Liberia joined forces with the Liberia Feminist Forum to initiate one of the country’s largest protest marches. Their message was accompanied by an awareness campaign and the hashtag #weareunprotected, and directed at both government and society.

Sierra Leone: Politically active against child marriage

In Sierra Leone, the priority at WAVES is access to education for girls. The organisation also fights at the political level against child marriage and female genital cutting. In 2019, WAVES and other activists successfully took a case to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), seeking an end to a law used by the Sierra Leone government to forbid pregnant girls from attending school.

Ivory Coast: Public awareness on the causes of violence

The Women’s Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in the Ivory Coast (CEFCI) is successfully drawing public attention to the causes and consequences of female genital cutting and marriages of underage girls.

2. Solidarity and support for survivors

Women and girls who have experienced sexualised violence need appropriate psychosocial, medical, legal and economic assistance. This is why our partner organisations offer survivors low-threshold contact points, trauma-sensitive counselling, and support as they make their way through the institutions.

Reintegration and empowerment of women who have experienced violence

In addition, women who are often stigmatised due to their experiences of violence are supported in the reintegration into their communities. Income-generating measures are aimed at empowering women and enabling them to provide for their livelihoods independently.

Liberia: Local protection networks and direct counselling

medica Liberia has established community-based support and protection networks which can offer rapid assistance to affected women even in remote regions. Women’s groups serve as an initial point of contact. Counsellors trained by medica Liberia can support women and accompany them to the police or hospital. Where appropriate, they also mediate between survivors and their families and involve the village elders in the conflict resolution efforts.

Liberia: Referral system for serious cases

In serious cases, the local protection networks facilitate contact between the survivors and the team from medica Liberia in the county capitals. Depending on their needs, the women and girls then receive psychosocial, legal, or medical counselling. Liberia: Trauma-sensitive training within institutions Increasingly often, after their contact with medica Liberia, many of the local authorities responsible for traditional mediation are taking the side of the women and helping them to take their case to court. Further, medica Liberia is providing training for police staff, lawyers, judges and teachers on the issues of gender, violence and human rights, as well as the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach (STA) to dealing with those affected by sexualised violence.

Liberia: Trauma-sensitive training within institutions

Increasingly often, after their contact with medica Liberia, many of the local authorities responsible for traditional mediation are taking the side of the women and helping them to take their case to court. Further, medica Liberia is providing training for police staff, lawyers, judges and teachers on the issues of gender, violence and human rights, as well as the Stress- and Trauma-sensitive Approach to dealing with those affected by sexualised violence.

3. Feminist work and regional networking

While the extent of sexualised violence in the region has been increasing for years, women’s rights defenders in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast are also facing the same trend that can be observed globally of civil society becoming more and more restricted in its scope for action. There is also a decline in the access to funding for women’s rights work in the region. So a strategically important component of the work in West Africa is the strengthening of feminist work and cross-border networking.

Strengthening local women’s rights organisations

As part of the co-operation with partner organisations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, medica mondiale is intentionally creating opportunities for our partner organisations to enhance their structures, synergies and strategies. Examples include building up funding strategies or documentation systems, as well as the introduction of security concepts and self-care procedures.

Feminist networking leads to sustainable impacts

The further development of strategies and networking with other feminist actors in the region also support the organisations in the long term. This overall approach enhances women’s rights work in the area and helps to bring about societal change. In the period leading up to the 2023 elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone, local partner organisations are working on a national and regional advocacy strategy. Since 2021, Medica Liberia is training other partner organisations in a South-to-South learning approach.

Empowerment of women and girls

In Liberia the Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative (RYMI) and in Sierra Leone the Girl2Girl Empowerment Movement have both created safe spaces where girls can express and organise themselves creatively and politically. In the Ivory Coast, the Women Center for Democracy and Human Rights supported women and girls who wanted to set up their own businesses. These involved the production of cassava flour and shea butter.

(Status focal points of work of: 07/2022)