DOMESTIC abuse in Sierra Leone is commonplace, according to 35-year-old wife and mother Mamie Sawyer.

"Most men do it to their wives," she says.

It’s one of a number of challenges for women and girls in a country where the first gender equality laws were passed only 12 years ago.

Recently, public outcry against sexual violence has been growing following a series of high-profile attacks, including a horrific rape case involving a five-year-old girl who was left paralysed by her attacker, a male relative.

Finally Sierra Leone's president has been pushed to action. In February, Julius Maada Bio declared the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence a national emergency after recorded cases of rape and assault doubled over the last year.

In a country of 7.5 million people, there were more than 8500 cases recorded last year, up from nearly 4000 in 2017, although the figures are significantly under-reported.

Mr Bio, who can act without parliamentary approval, having declared a national emergency, intends to show no leniency for attackers: attacks on minors, which account for a third of all cases, are now punishable by life sentence.

The move has been welcomed by charities working with victims but its success depends on how the message is spread to remote areas, where villages are headed by chiefs.

Work to tackle gender based violence is often in the hands of NGOs, such as Christian Aid, which, with its partner agencies RADA (Rehabilitation And Development Agency) and BAN (Budget Advocacy Network), introduces a programme called Gender Model Family in the villages where they work.

Justice for women subjected to violence is not easy to come by; villagers must travel to the next nearest town, which can mean days of walking. Police officers will expect to have a motorbike hired for them so they can travel back to the village.

In Bumbeh Pejeh village, in Pujehun district, which benefits from the support of Christian Aid, RADA and BAN, Mamie, a mother to two girls, aged 14 and six, is eight months’ pregnant. She has also lost children in infancy, a terrible but common occurrence for families.

Mamie says when she was abandoned by her husband, she had to go to Pujehun town to seek help.

"I went to Pujehun with my parents to the Family Support Unit [a specialist police unit] and the matter was dealt with," she says. "He was in prison... and he apologised. And he decided not to do what he did.

"Normally, if the men decide not to be responsible, the chief and the parents come in and he shows remorse, shows humility it will be settled."

Rape and sexual violence were prevalent during the 1991 to 2002 civil war and, as the Ebola crisis devastated the country from 2014 to 2016, outbreaks of rape and sexual assault again swept across the country.

Classes were cancelled so girls did not have the protection of school and there was a surge in teenage pregnancy during the Ebola outbreak, in some areas increasing by 65 per cent, according to official figures.

In many cases girls who had lost parents were forced to sell sex in exchange for food, shelter and protection.

Sierra Leonean law forbids visibly pregnant girls from attending school or sitting exams.

In Bumbeh Pejeh, many of the girls became pregnant during the Ebola crisis.

But a model set up by the NGOs allows women to pay into a scheme called "the box", giving them a source of financial support and affordable loans.

One of the three keyholders to the box, Adama Fabuleh, speaks of the pride she takes from being part of the scheme and the respect given to her. She adds: "From that emergency fund, after Ebola, we took out money and bought uniforms and footwear for those teenage girls so that they can go back to school.

"The result is they went to school and they are still going to school."

While the President is determined to tackle the prevalence of sexual violence in Sierra Leone, there is little impetus to deal with the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), part of life for Sierra Leonean women.

In the country, according to the World Health Organisation, nine in 10 girls are cut, often with pen knives, broken glass and razor blades, as part of an initiation rite called Bondo Society. Last December a 10-year-old girl bled to death after undergoing FGM.

The practice was technically banned during the Ebola crisis but it is an accepted cultural practice, which some politicians support.

First Lady Fatima Maada Bio launched her Hands Off Our Girls campaign earlier this year but this does not mention FGM.

In Nyandehun Besiema, in Pujehun district, Amie Fawundu says she was aged 10 when she was taken to the Bondo bush.

Amie, who is unsure of her age, is three months pregnant now and already has two children, a boy, nine, and a girl of four. Her first child died at birth, a result of Amie being far from medical help.

Despite pain and danger of FGM, Amie felt left out, she says, by not being a 'Society woman'.

"I decided, nobody forced me," she says. "I was so excited. I wanted to go. I was so moved by seeing my friends around me being called ‘Society Women’.

"If you are not part of the Society, you think of yourself as out of the group. And you are not a full woman."

Joanna Tom-Kargbo, senior health programme manager for Christian Aid, says the situation is challenging and complex.

"[FGM] is a cultural thing and it’s a very sensitive issue," she says.

It is a desperate situation. "They have a law that children should get to 18 before they are initiated. But again, when you go to the villages, you see little children being circumcised. So it’s not working. You need to have the political will."

She said: "Just last year it was recorded over 8000 cases of sexual abuse and nothing was done.

"But now we have campaigners coming together and talking about these issues."

In Freetown, Honourable Rebecca Yei Kamara says she is determined to champion women's equality through her work in parliament.

The MP took part in Christian Aid-funded work on gender justice that helped her and other women to be elected with the aim of bringing more female voices into politics.

The politician says NGOs are critical in the struggle for women’s rights. “We don’t want this to stay at just Parliament making this law – we want to join the other NGOs and to reach out to our constituencies.

"I’m trying to get some money to go school to school to talk to young girls, because if a female MP is standing here in front of these girls, they will want to know why is this Honourable here."

She also believes the support of male MPs is vital. "Seeing a man advocating for women," she added "Can also send a very deep [message] to other men to stop what they are doing to women, to come and support women."

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Christian Aid is also inviting supporters to join its campaign to drop Sierra Leone’s debt that was incurred during its fight against Ebola, in 2014 to 2016.

Debt repayments are taking money away from improving healthcare services that is so desperately needed.

Sign the petition at