Sierra Leone

Last Updated 24 October 2023

Predominantly Sunni Muslim (77%), with an influential Christian minority (22%), Sierra Leone’s religious practices tend to be syncretic and mixed with traditional belief.1

Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

The Constitution2 and other laws and policies protect freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association.

Article 24(1) of the Constitution guarantees that:

“Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience and for the purpose of this section the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and both in public and in private to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Article 35(5) of the Constitution further renders it illegal for political parties to be formed along religious or ethnic lines. This includes the party’s purpose, which cannot be formed for the sole purpose of “securing or advancing the interests and welfare of a particular tribal or ethnic group, community, geographical area or religious faith.”

Although not mandated under the Constitution, the authorities maintain a tradition of having a president and vice president of different religious faiths.3

All prominent Christian and Islamic holidays, including Christmas Day, Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday were recognized and observed by the government.4

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is charged with handling religious affairs. This includes the registration of religious communities, which is subject to an annual review and renewal process. There is no penalty for organizations that choose not to file for recognition, but registration is required to obtain tax exemptions and waiver benefits when importing religious materials. Religious organizations intending to engage in charitable activities are required to establish a separate unit to carry out such functions and to register that entity as an NGO with the Sierra Leone Association of Non-Governmental Organizations.5;

The authorities appear to liaise closely with the Inter Religious Council (IRC) of Sierra Leone – an umbrella group formed in order to foster dialogue and peaceful coexistence. For example, in August 2022, the government liaised with the IRC regarding measures to peace and national cohesion in the wake of violent protests prompted by the rising cost of living.6 Current members of the IRC are representatives of Christian and Muslim sects; it is unclear whether non-religious groups would be welcome to join the Council.

Education and children’s rights

Subparagraphs 2 and 3 of Article 24 of the Constitution guarantee that no person attending school – except by their own consent (or that of a guardian, if under age) – shall be forced to receive religious instruction or observe religious practices, and that religious groups may provide religious instruction to members of their community.

The Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act, 20237 establishes three types of school: government-run; government-assisted; and private schools. Government-assisted schools may include public schools owned by faith-based organizations, communities, or other institutions/organizations supported by the government. The government supports schools through the payment of teacher salaries, payment of subsidies, provision of teaching and learning materials, provision of science equipment and utilities.8

According to the most recent school census (2022),9 83% of schools are public – receiving some form of government funding – while 17% are owned by private individuals or groups, including religious groups. Approximately 91% of all schools whether publicly or privately owned receive some form of government support as outlined above. The census indicated that, at the time of reporting, there were almost 3,000 schools that were operating illegally, and therefore without proper scrutiny (accounting for almost 22% of all schools in the country). Religious groups owned approximately 55% of all schools across the country.

The government requires a standard Religious and Moral Education (RME) curriculum in all public schools through high school. Reports have indicated that the course is comparative and provides an introduction to Christianity, Islam, African traditional beliefs, and other religious traditions around the world, as well as teachings about morals and ethics.10 However, a review of the syllabus as published on the website of the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education would suggest that it is confessional in nature, and fails to include any broadly secular or philosophical content.11 There does not appear to be an option to opt-out of this subject at the basic and junior secondary levels.12 However, at the senior secondary level, students may have the opportunity to opt-out, as they are only required to pick up to three of eight core subjects should they choose the “Social & Cultural Studies Stream” as their specialism.13 Instruction in a specific religion is permissible only in private schools owned by religious groups.14

Government schools generally support Christian and Islamic prayers during assemblies or other school functions.15 It is unclear whether participation is compulsory in practice.

Improvements in access to education for girls

In 2020, President Bio together with the Minister for Basic and Senior Secondary Education announced an end to a ban on visibly-pregnant girls from attending school.16

The ban – which was formalized in 2010, but had been a longstanding practise prior to this date – had led to the exclusion of hundreds of girls from education each year, owing to the high rate of child pregnancy and child marriage in the country.17; It had also served to reinforce patriarchal beliefs and negative narratives about adolescent girls.

On 24 April 2023, the government passed the revised Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act,18 which emphasizes the importance of inclusive education and references its Radical Inclusion Policy.19

Family, community and society

Traditional chiefs and religious leaders hold a significant position within Sierra Leonean society, often wielding significant influence, including during periods of elections.20;

Harmful traditional practices

Female Genital Mutilation

According to a 2019 Demographic and Health Survey, 83% of women aged 15-49 have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), with circumcision typically being performed between the ages of 10-14.21 According to the survey, “many people regard [FGM] as an accepted practice and one that is important to curb sexual appetite and prepare women for marriage.” It is particularly prevalent as a right of passage into Bondo society – a secretive women’s society with an entrenched role in the country’s tribal and political life.22;; Civil society organizations have indicated that the practice’s root in cultural and traditional practices has made it difficult to combat.23;


According to an article in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health,24

“Reports of child witchcraft accusations and confessions are not uncommon in Sierra Leone, a country of almost eight million people on the west coast of Africa.”

In addition, according to a coalition of NGOs supporting individuals with leprosy,25

“In Sierra Leone, regardless of the language, culture and tradition, some people regard leprosy to be
associated with witchcraft or some curse. This has led to social form of stigma and discrimination for people who have been cured from the leprosy disease but still have physical disabilities.”

According to a 2009 research paper by a UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Specialist,26

“Traditional justice mechanisms may punish women or girls for offences that are not illegal under national or international law. In Sierra Leone, although chiefs are not authorized to adjudicate on witchcraft cases, for which there is no crime in national Sierra Leonean law, chiefs have nevertheless illegally carried out functions beyond their competency and ‘at times they collude with men in the community to forcibly evict women and children from their homes or subject them to arbitrary detention and other forms of gender based violence.’”

Further, those who suffered injury or amputation during civil conflict, are often regarded as victims of demons or evil spirits, and face ostracism as a result.

The rights of women

Women are severely disadvantaged and discriminated against, especially under tribal norms that operate in most of the country (besides the capital). Women and girls are denied equal access to education, medical care, employment, and credit.

In 2022, Sierra Leone brought in the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act27 that establishes a minimum 30% threshold for women in positions of authority across the political, commercial and charitable sectors. It is hoped that the law will counter the socio-cultural barriers to women’s participation, including religious beliefs. In an interview with the National Democratic Institute, Hawa Conteh MP, stated, “for some religious leaders, they think women should always be at the back and not the front row. And even our cultural beliefs, our cultural beliefs also support the idea that women should not be at the front, they should be at the back, that women should not be in the decision-making bodies.”28

Sierra Leone has one of the world’s worst maternal mortality rates, and yet abortion is criminalized under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a colonial legacy.29 In December 2015, parliament passed the Safe Abortion Act 2015, which enabled access to abortion under any circumstances up to 12 weeks and in cases of incest, rape and foetal impairment up to 24 weeks. However, after protests from influential religious leaders, the then President Ernest Bai Koroma refused to sign the; In 2022, government ministers including the President, announced their support for a bill on risk-free motherhood, which would expand access to abortion.31; There was no further update on the status of the bill at the time of reporting.

LGBTI+ rights

Homosexuality remains a taboo in Sierra Leone. Male-to-male sexual acts are prohibited under Section 61 of the Offences Against the Person Act.32 he 1861 law – a legacy of British colonial rule – carries a penalty of life in prison for “buggery and bestiality”. There is no legal prohibition against women who have sex with women. The law is reportedly not enforced in practice.33; However, the Human Dignity Trust reports that,34

“There have been consistent reports of discrimination and violence being committed against LGBT people in recent years, including assault, threats, harassment, blackmail, familial rejection, and the denial of basic rights and services.”

Article 27 of the Constitution, which prohibits discrimination, does not offer protection from discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

The rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association while guaranteed under the Constitution, face limitations in practice.35;

Although the government repealed sections of the Public Order Act, 1965,36,%202020.pdf criminalizing libel – a move welcomed by human rights organizations – several sections of the act that constrain freedom of expression and assembly remain in force, including Part III, Section 17 which forbids spontaneous protest.37

Amnesty International report that, over the course of 2022, the authorities turned to using provisions criminalizing incitement to curb criticism.38 That same year, the security forces were found to have used excessive force to curb protests against the rising cost of living. Six police officers and at least 20 protesters and bystanders are reported to have died.39

According to submissions made as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process by several organizations in 2021, journalists, LGBTI+ activists, and environmental and land rights defenders frequently fall victim of violence and intimidation, including arbitrary detention.40


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