Gender in Practice

Culture, Politics and Society in Sierra Leone

by John Idriss Lahai (Author)
Monographs XIV, 276 Pages
Series: Africa in Development, Volume 14


In Sierra Leone, the dominant epistemological framework of the political and social history of the country and the post-colonial understanding of the place of men and women are based on the inter-subjective discourses of power, place, identity and belongingness. Through a complex web of culturally regulated, politically motivated and patriarchally conditioned belief systems on sexualities, a transition is imagined that goes beyond symbolism and familial attributes. Its aesthetics, as this book demonstrates, are deployed as a domain in which the political and cultural understanding of statehood, gender relations, politics, governance, armed conflict, human rights, women’s empowerment and sexual identity are made and remade. In the main, the rudimentary discourses on the everyday individual/collective survival strategies of women have exposed, in expressive forms, the gendered uncertainties in people’s lives. However, in practical terms, as described in this book, these uncertainties are a demonstration of the tensions between culturalism (and its post-colonial discontents) and the gender-ideological narrative concerning the question of gender equality and women’s place in politics, culture and society across time and space in Sierra Leone.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Understanding Gender in Sierra Leone: Discourse, Practice and Constructs
  • Chapter 2: Rainforest Belief Systems and the Making of Gender Identities
  • Chapter 3: Gender Inequality and the Making of a Civil War
  • Chapter 4: Violent Masculinity and the Making of the Warring Factions
  • Chapter 5: Gender Hierarchies, Roles and Violence in the Warring Factions
  • Chapter 6: Beyond the Recognition of SGBV in the Peace Versus the Justice Debate: How Women Won the Civil War
  • Chapter 7: The Aftermath: Accountability for Gender-Based Political and Cultural Violence
  • Chapter 8: At War’s End! Understanding the Postcolonial Question on Queer Sexuality
  • Chapter 9: Socio-Political Change or Resistance? Religion, Politics and the Question of Homosexuality
  • Chapter 10: Women’s Agency and the Institutionalisation of Interventions Against Gender Violence and Discrimination Against Women
  • Afterword: Acknowledging the Past and Present, and Forging the Way Forward
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← x | xi →


In Sierra Leone, many people contributed to this book. Let me first and foremost appreciate the women of Sierra Leone. This book is about lived experiences; your story. That said, I do acknowledge all the interlocutors who participated in the interviews for this projects, in Freetown, Bo, Port Loko and Kailahun. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to you. I would also like to thank my field research assistants, Lucretia, Boyz, Oswald and Alpha. Looking back to all that happened between 2009 and 2012, your unsurpassed research skills and bravery should be commended. When unforeseen circumstances prevented me from attending some of the interview sessions, you took risks and sacrificed your livelihood to help make my fieldwork a reality.

My thanks also go to my anonymous contacts in the Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, Local Government, Internal Affairs, Justice, and Economic Development ministries of the Sierra Leone Government. I am grateful for your assistance. To the leadership of the 50/50 Group, and the Gender and Documentation Centre (Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone), I say, thank you.

The original research for this book was funded by the School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England, Australia (UNE), with additional fieldwork support provided by the faculty’s International Postgraduate Scholarship for Research Excellence. The Keith and Dorothy Mackay Postgraduate Travelling Scholarship and the Vice Chancellor (Research) funded a subsequent period of fieldwork on which this book draws, under the Research Excellence Framework. I am grateful to all these funders.

This book also draws on my doctoral dissertation, completed at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New England, Australia (UNE), and was itself written while I was a Fellow at the University of Sierra Leone. Numerous UNE mentors and colleagues, including Professor Helen Ware (my doctoral dissertation supervisor), Dr Bert Jenkins, Dr Saira ← xi | xii → Bano Orakzai and Dr D.B. Subedi, provided invaluable academic advice and personal encouragement. I am grateful to you all.

To Madam Fatou, one of the greatest champions for women’s right in the history of Sierra Leone, accept my posthumous gratitude. Beyond your role of being my mother (my mother), your contribution towards my education was immense. It was, partly, your commitment to women’s right in Sierra Leone, and by the grace of God, through our Lord Jesus, that spurred me into gender studies and women’s rights activism. Sierra Leone will miss you. Continue to rest in perpetual peace, Mama. I am also indebted to my other precious family members: Nenneh (Puchu Pu), Aminata Jalikatu, Kadija, Saleem, Fatou (‘Small mama Fatou’), Brima, Emmanuel, Papa Brima Sheku, Abdul, Jennifer, Precious, Joel and Maseray and family. I know that you deserve more of me, and I do appreciate your patience throughout these years. When the tempest came, you became my anchor! Together we have conquered; together we shall rebuild! To my in-laws, Mama Sarah (‘Mamzy’) and Mr Brima Kamara, thank you all for being there for me! I am also grateful for the encouragement and support from Petra Urahora and her family, my ‘Wantoks’ in the Solomon Islands. I will never forget your kindness – most especially for the laughter you have brought into the life of Joel. Thank you.

To Reverend Kaye Colliver (my ‘Aussie Mum’) and her family: Peter, Luke and Fiona. I appreciate the love and kindness you have shown me over the years. You have left an indelible mark in my life. To Mr Samual Pobee and his family: Mrs Abena Pobee, Rachel and Kweku, I am grateful to you, too. To friends, Richmond and Gloria Asamoah, Felix Owusu, Mohamed Bah, Mag Samoura, Ethel Koroma, Eunice Okyere Marfoh, Emmanuel Ado, Uncle Sam and family, Rev. Joe-Andar, Rev. Addision, Uncle Bismarck and family, Rebecca Obeng, Sylvia Williams, Olu Coker, Victor and Hickmatu Lamin, and to the Sierra Leone Community of South Australia, thank you for your encouragement.

Of course, it should be noted that none of the people mentioned here are in any way responsible for the arguments, reasoning, judgements, conclusions or errors in this book; these are mine alone.

John Idriss Lahai


← xii | xiii →


← xvi | 1 →


Sierra Leone, a complex country of contradictions, begs many questions. What kind of country is it and, more specifically, what kind of gender relationships have people forged throughout the country’s cultural and political histories? What kind of cultural agency, including that which relates to the ritual practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), have women developed in their quest for recognition within their communities? What are the societal expectations of women (and men) – their roles and responsibilities – before, during and after the civil conflict? And what does this tell us about the issues, trends and processes needed to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV); and about the complex engendered questions of what (hetero/homo) sexuality is, or is perceived to be, in contemporary Sierra Leone?

Whatever the competing answers to these questions may be, one thing is certain: Sierra Leone is a landscape of many engendered paradoxes. Despite the existence of many opportunities for gender equality and women’s empowerment, as well as possibilities for gender-responsive good governance, the country is still a place where gender identities are modelled along patriarchal lines. It is a perilous environment that was created, in part, by various forms of violent masculinities. And as such, it is a country where most women are constantly on guard against gender-based violence. It is a country where, as a result of entrenched pre-war gender inequalities, women remain excluded from some of the decision-making processes that directly affect their lives.

Of emphasis also, Sierra Leone is a gendered space, where the gender identities and sexual orientation of men and women are understood as static. It frowns against sexual transitions from heterosexuality to homosexuality. To publicly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT) is to attract condemnation or even death (at the hands of a mob). The only transition that is encouraged is the nature/nurture maturation. For women this involves the transition from girlhood to womanhood; from ← 1 | 2 → childhood to adulthood; from learning about one’s reproductive roles (that are biologically determined) and domestic responsibilities (that are culturally constructed and given) to actually performing these functions with a sense of maturity (Lahai 2014). In the performance of these roles, the woman should aspire towards meeting the needs of the family, even if in doing so her own personal interests (and safety) were compromised. This explains why women are generally willing to talk about the experiences of their family members and less about themselves when asked to talk about their lived experiences.


XIV, 276
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (February)
Sierra Leone Gender and Sexual Identities Women’s Empowerment
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XVI, 276 pp.

Biographical notes

John Idriss Lahai (Author)

John Idriss Lahai earned his PhD from the University of New England, Australia; and postgraduate degrees from the United Nations University for Peace Studies (UPEACE) and the University of Sierra Leone. Prior to joining Flinders University, Australia as a Research Fellow in the School of History and International Relations, he was an independent consultant with extensive experience working for think tanks and governments in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Much of his academic and applied work has investigated the lived experiences of vulnerable peoples and communities within the margins of conflict, peacebuilding and state transformation, seeking to integrate perspectives from gender and women's studies, public policy, public health governance, cultural anthropology, critical political economy, security studies, and human rights. He is co-editor of African Frontiers: Insurgency, Governance and Peacebuilding in Postcolonial States (2015) and author of The Ebola Pandemic in Sierra Leone: Representations, Actors, Interventions, and the Path to Recovery (2016), and his other publications have appeared in journals and edited books.


Title: Gender in Practice