By Emma Black

The Freetown Secondary School for Girls, known fondly as “FSSG”, is a haven for pre-adolescent and teenage girls in the heart of Freetown, Sierra Leone. The junior secondary school hosts around 1,100 girls and Daniella Bangura, 14, will soon transition into senior secondary school with approximately 1,500 other girls. “Yes, I see girls getting pregnant; some show up with bruises or sores and are quiet in class; some bring their market to sell after school and many of my friends are tired. It’s not easy being a girl in Sierra Leone.”

The countless girls and young women across Sierra Leone are at a tremendously high risk of human papillomavirus, or HPV, transmission and resulting cervical cancer. Contributing to the risks facing girls and young women are: violence and sexual abuse, poverty, harmful cultural beliefs, early marriage, and the lack of sex education in schools, among others.

“At around 10-12, is a critical age for children and in the school system,” said Dr Austin Demby, the Minister of Health and Sanitation (MoHS). “It’s where you see the largest group of students and they are transitioning from primary to secondary school. We want HPV vaccinations to be like a rite of passage – a gift from the Ministry that will empower girls and women and protect them from cervical cancer for the rest of their life.”

At one time, in the not-too-distant past, Sierra Leone was considered the worst place to be a girl and certainly one of the worst places to be a young woman. The myriad of challenges across economic, social, health, judicial, political and psychological spheres were almost overwhelming. That’s slowly changing but for many young women, their futures remain in peril.

Violence and Sexual Abuse

According to the Demographic and Health Survey of 2019, 61% of females aged 15 to 49 reported having experienced physical violence. And, 40% of women around 15-years of age have experienced “intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence in the last 12 months,” noted Statistics Sierra Leone (Stats SL) and ICF in 2020.

The rate of sexual abuse of Sierra Leonean girls is staggering. In 2022, UNICEF reported 22% of adolescent girls under 18-years have had sex with a man at least ten years older than them. One of every four Sexual, Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) cases reported was sexual penetration of a minor (Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, 2020;). In 2020, the Rainbo Initiative, who offer services to SGBV victims, recorded 3,548 referrals for SGBV; 70% were 15-years-old or younger, rising to 97% of under 18-year-olds. The Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police, in 2021, registered 4,468 cases of violence against children, with almost half of these cases (2,064) constituting sexual offences, mostly against girls.

A UNDP Report on the Drivers of SGBV, in 2021, cited two young interviewees. “Some men are even proud that they are the first to dis-virgin a girl” (Surv0005) and that there is still a belief that when “men lie down with virgins and take the blood to a sorcerer, they will have more power” (Surv0003).

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

UNICEF, based on the government’s health survey and other representative surveys, notes 86.1% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years have undergone FGM/C. In rural areas of Sierra Leone, the FGM rates are closer to 90% and urban rates are around 76%.

Family Life

A Freetown-based, female lawyer who asked not to be identified said, “The lack of nurturing relationships in families has been a key factor contributing to SGBV because there is lack of parenting for the children, which puts girls at risk…. From my experiences with judicial cases, most of them do not have good relationships with their parents; there is no bond between them. Because of this, even when they are abused, the girls don’t explain to the parents what happened… and so the issue comes up 3-4 months later when the girl is pregnant.”

Abibatu M Bangura is a bright 12-year-old girl in Junior Secondary School in Freetown. She said, “I don’t really talk to my step-mother, (her father’s second wife). She does not have much time for us at home. There are four of us girls in the house. My mother goes to sell in the morning and comes back late at night. When she’s home, she is tired.”

In 2019, 30.4% of girls did not live with a biological parent and 12% were orphans; one or both parents were deceased. Only 40% of children live with both biological parents according to the Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey, 2019. And, 86.5% of children aged 1-14 years in Sierra Leone experience some form of violent discipline in their households. The same survey found 30% of girls were “performing economic activity” including selling goods on the streets, to help their families. Around 50% of households derive their income from retail trade activities.

According to the Bureau of International Labour Affairs, “the child protection system in Sierra Leone is weak, under-resourced, donor-dependent, and lacking coordination. These factors in combination leave thousands of children vulnerable to exploitation and harm.”


Sierra Leone continues to be ranked among the bottom countries of the world in the UNDP Human Development Index. Shockingly, 81% of its population lives in poverty and 59.2% living in extreme poverty living on less than $1.25 per day and around (55%) are estimated to be food insecure according to a UNDP report in 2020.

This economic situation has left many girls and young women (and men) in an extremely vulnerable position. The World Bank has noted, “The lack of stable employment and means of income generation can lead to a common phenomenon known as “unequal transactional sex out of material need”, which has been reported as a key reason for girl’s and women’s vulnerability to sexual violence. Teenage girls are especially at risk of this arrangement due to the material necessity they have to acquire certain products and the need to help out their own families.”

The Laws

The 2012 Sexual Offences Act, which was amended in October 2019, provides harsher penalties (up to life in prison) for rape and sexual assault and established the Sexual Offences Model Court. The Act prohibits sexual activity with children (anyone under the age of 18, including those in a marital relationship). The 2017 Child Rights Act prohibits marriage for anyone under the age of 18, among other protective provisions for children. However, this is undermined by the 2008 Customary Marriage Act, which allows marriage under 18-years with parental consent.

Early Marriage

According to a UNICEF global database, in 2021, based on DHS, MICS and other government sources, 29.6% of women aged 20 to 24 years who were first married or in union before age 18. In Sierra Leone, the drivers of child marriage are rooted in poverty, lack of access to education, gender inequality and discriminatory gender norms and beliefs. The country is home to around 800,000 child brides, 400,000 of whom were married before age 15. Sierra Leone ranks 19th in child marriage rates in the world, with 13% of girls married by age 15, and 39% by age 18.

Teen Pregnancy

According to the World Bank, in 2019 Sierra Leone registered among the world’s highest adolescent pregnancy rates, with 108 births per 1,000 adolescents. The phenomenon of adolescent pregnancy is astounding – 38% of girls have given birth by age 18 and 45% of girls have had babies by the time they are 19-years old, noted the government’s Demographic Health Survey of 2019.

The Ministry of Health and Sanitation has noted pregnancy complications are the number one killer of girls in Sierra Leone, accounting for 25% of all deaths of girls age 15-19.


Leading cause of death for 10-19-year-olds are communicable diseases including HIV/TB, malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhoea, according to the Ministry of Health’s framework for the person-centred life stages approach to health service delivery, 2023-2030.

“We are in the era where no one should suffer or die from diseases that are preventable with the use of vaccines. And, we will make these lifesaving services accessible to safeguard the health of women and girls,” said Dr Steven Velabo Shongwe, WHO Representative in Sierra Leone.

Sexual intercourse forced on children or consented to as adults is the primary route of transmission of genital HPV infection. It also spreads through close skin-to-skin touching during intimate activities. A person with HPV can pass the infection to someone even when they have no signs or symptoms. Most sexually active people have already been exposed to HPV.

Sex Education – or lack of

In the recent past, Sierra Leone has undergone a major shift in educational policies. But, the hangover effects of years of neglect continues to plague school-age children. In 2017, only 45% of children of JSS-age were attending primary school, and almost one fifth (19%) were out of school altogether, with only 36% attending JSS in-line with their age-group. Following the introduction of a free education policy in 2018, enrolment as documented in the Annual School Census, increased across the board by 40% at pre-primary level, 29% at primary, 43% at JSS, and 48% at SSS level.

In 2022, the MBSSE introduced a new curriculum, which should help improve reading levels and the quality of education for children. However, an independent review of the new curriculum noted significant gaps and problem areas.

According to the Out-Of-School Children Study in November 2021, by UNICEF and the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE), more than half of 15-year-olds and above (57%) were illiterate and half of those leaving primary school are unable to read or write.

The Study notes, “Girls drop out of school at a higher rate which can be largely attributed to the intersection of poverty and gender norms, involving issues such as transactional sex, early marriage, and the burden of having to perform a disproportionate share of household chores.”

The UNICEF Report also noted, “The concerns about curriculum expressed by out-of-school girls centred around the lack of sexuality education to promote sound sexual and reproductive health (SRH) practices. Numerous adolescent mothers consulted reported that they did not understand contraception or pregnancy.”

A review of the National Curriculum Framework and Guidelines for Basic Education Using the Sexuality Review and Analysis Tool (SERAT), in 2020, sponsored by UNFPA, UNESCO and using International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, revealed, “Pupils lacked basic information about their sexual organs, healthy relationships with the opposite sex, harmful practices and an understanding of gender.” The study also found, “Teachers (40% of whom were untrained and volunteer) were using their discretion by teaching about violence and consent and bodily integrity, albeit with a fear-based approach. It was also apparent that despite the absence of learning objectives covering gender, lessons often contained messaging that perpetuated gender unequal norms and attitudes.”

The 2020 assessment of curriculum found, “Between 12-15 years there was no teaching on sexuality and sexual behaviour and teaching on sexual and reproductive health was “present to some extent.” The same curriculum assessment on primary school curriculum, between 5-8 years, found there was no teaching on Understanding Gender, Violence and Staying Safe, Skills for Health, Human Body and Development, Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour and Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Daniella E Bangura is 15-years-old and is looking forward to her senior years in secondary school. She said, “I noticed a lot of changes in my body since primary school. I’ve grown. I see my menses, which I had to learn about from my older sister and friends. At my school, we learned nothing about our bodies or really anything about diseases like viruses, except we learned about COVID-19 and Ebola.”

“It was like my (male) teacher was not going to talk about anything to do with sex or puberty or our bodies. I certainly don’t know anything about HPV or cancer or anything like that,” she added.


Globally, cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women with an estimated 266,000 deaths and 528,000 new cases each year. Around 85% of the global burden of cervical cancer occurs in lower-income countries. According to the Sierra Leone Cancer registry, cervical cancer is the second most common, and number one killer, of all cancers among women aged between 14 and 44-years-old.

Statistics from the Sierra Leone Cancer registry show that cervical cancer is the second most common cancer (after breast cancer) and the biggest killer of all cancers among women aged between 14 and 44 years old. Only 8% of women have ever been screened for cervical cancer in Sierra Leone, according to the Ministry of Health.

In 2020, there were 4,708 new cancer cases detected among men and women. Breast cancer accounted for 20.9% or 985 cases. Cervical or cervix uteri cases accounted for 10.7% or 504 cases. Other cancers 2,189 (46.5%); colorectum (4.7%) or 222 cases; liver cancer (8.6%) or 407 cases and prostate cancer with 401 cases or 8.5% of all cancers detected. WHO figures indicate that if a person is diagnosed with cancer in Sierra Leone they have a 73% chance of dying… or a 27% chance of survival.

HPV Vaccine

The safe, effective HPV vaccine has been available in most wealthier countries since the 2000s. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and its Alliance partners are now working to ensure the vaccine is available to girls across the world: Sierra Leone is the 19th African country to introduce the vaccine.

The Minister of Health, Dr Demby, noted, “The science is really great and that’s the other thing that will drive this. There’s no longer a question that the HPV causes cervical cancer. When we protect girls, we build a longer life for women.”

Over a two-week period in October 2022, Ministry of Health workers and community mobilizers were involved in a HPV vaccination campaign, sponsored by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF and WHO, that inoculated more than 182,000 girls between 10 and 14-years-old. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) recommends HPV vaccination for all boys and girls at age 9 to 12-years.

“The campaign is a first step towards protecting girls in Sierra Leone from cervical cancer and providing them with a better chance of living longer, healthier lives and reaching their full potential,” said Thabani Maphosa, the Managing Director of Country Programmes at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “Historically, HPV coverage worldwide, but especially in lower-income countries where the cancer burden is highest, was already too low.”

Health Minister, Dr Demby, noted, “This initiative is part of a broader vision for women and girls… and society. For example, if we build a ‘firewall’ of vaccinated 10-year-olds, who will be protected for life, then, for young women, we make sure we detect any pre-cancerous lesions early with a simple test and a relatively simple procedure, we can eliminate cervical cancer.”

Sierra Leone’s former Minister of MBSS Education, David Sengeh, spoke at the launch of the vaccination campaign. He said, “This is a pivotal moment as we seek to eliminate cervical cancer in Sierra Leone. Part of that strategy is vaccination. It will be disastrous for us to invest in children and girls, who then will grow up to have cervical cancer and die. That is why it’s so critical that our girls can access preventative methods as well as early detection and treatment when necessary,” he explained.

Dr Austin Demby, highlighted, “The goal is to eradicate cervical cancer by ensuring that by age 15, 90% of girls are fully vaccinated, 70% of women aged 25 and above are screened with a simple acetic acid (vinegar) test and 90% of women identified with the cervical disease receive treatment and we manage invasive cases.”

In Freetown, Philipa, 12, whose mother did not want her last name used, said, “I saw the nurses at my school and was told we were supposed to be vaccinated. I didn’t know anything so I called my mother. My mother said I should not do anything because she didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know anything either.”

Dr Desmond Kangbai, Program Manager of the Child Health and Immunization Program, at the Ministry of Health, said they are working with the Sabine Vaccine Institute to research vaccine hesitancy. “We are examining the causes and develop policies to increase integrated vaccinations at all levels,” he said.

“I don’t want my daughters to be vaccinated unless I really know about the medicine,” said Fatmata Turay, a parent of two teenage girls in Freetown. She said, “I don’t know anything about HPV and the vaccine but I know women are dying of cancer in Sierra Leone. If we can prevent cancer, then that is good, but the government needs to inform parents first.”

Dr Lynda Grant, the Deputy Program Manager of the Child Health and Immunisation Program, at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS), outlined some of the strategies used during the campaign in October 2022. She said the Ministry of Health worked with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Education (MBSSE) and different community leaders. The MoHS claims they disseminated over 19,000 posters and pamphlets for girls, parents and teachers across 8,400 schools and 1,560 health centres. Two radio jingles were produced and aired 6,840 times on 34 radio stations, and radio and TV shows and video spots were aired reaching an estimated 3.7 million people.

The Minister of Health noted, “I think we want to build a relationship with the public. It’s partly our inability to communicate well… to educate the 8 million people about these initiatives. When you take the time during quiet moments to explain what we’re trying to do then the messages will get out there and more acceptance will follow.” He added, “Investing in HPV vaccines, preventing cervical cancer alongside the many other women’s empowerment initiatives will go a long way to developing Sierra Leone. “This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Global Health Reporting Initiative: Vaccines and Immunization in the Caribbean, in partnership with Sabin Vaccine Institute.”

Logging By Emma Black Hassan Sesay, 31, is amongst the fourth generation to live and work on the side of the hill overlooking the Royanka village in northern Sierra Leone. “The land was passed down to me and my two brothers and three sisters from my mother, who got it from her grandmother and she from her parents,” he said. “My grandfather and his father before him maintained the forest and used the bush for the family. They made a good life here but now things are very different. We can’t earn enough or grow enough food to feed our families. So, we turn to cutting the trees to make money.” Sesay’s ancestral land is now scrubland without a single tree over 5-metres tall. Small bushes, bare, scorched earth and a few sticks of cassava leaf are all that remain of a once lush, canopy-covered hillside. “We began cutting the bigger trees because a friend said he’d give us Le3 million (approximately $300 USD),” Sesay said. “We were desperate for money for food and to reroof our unfinished house. So, we cut and sold trees.” Sierra Leone ranked 182 out of 188 countries on the United Nations 2020 Human Development Index and the poverty rate is 57% with almost 11% of the population living in extreme poverty. Over 72% of the “extremely poor” population live in rural areas and poverty is highest in the northern region. (GoSL, 2019) Sesay recalled being a small boy and what the land looked like when he’d harvest cassava, plant rice in swampy areas and climb trees for mangos and bananas with his grandparents. “The land was full of green… lush and plentiful. We were living off the land and we had food to eat,” he said. The land around Royanka sits in what’s known as the woody savanna ecoregion, characterized by a “fairly closed canopy of trees up to 15-metres tall with an undergrowth of tall grasses up to three-metres in height.” The woody savanna of Kasseh Chiefdom also covers large areas of northern Sierra Leone and is within a short drive to the Koinadugu and Kono Plateaus (KKP) ecoregion, which extends southward from Guinea. The plateau is mostly covered by a mosaic of woodland and savannas, interspersed with cropland. In 2017, the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) estimated that less than five percent of the country’s original cover in 1990 was still intact. This has continued to decrease at a rate of around 100,000 ha every year, mainly through large-scale and subsistence agriculture, commercial logging and logging for charcoal for energy (Office of the Chief Minister, GoSL, 2019). Much of that forest cover has been converted to agricultural lands, savannas and other secondary vegetation. Decreases in forest cover are the result of multiple factors including clearing for agriculture, logging (both legal and illegal), mining, construction, fuelwood, and charcoal production.” But, they add, “There is a serious deficit of information about the existing biological diversity and resources of Sierra Leone’s forests. Timber and other resource inventories have not been conducted for the Forest Reserves. Existing timber inventory data is scarce and most information is derived from small area sample plots carried out by investors in anticipation of commercial extraction.” Amos V. Kamara, a Forest Conservator at the Ministry of the Environment, said, deforestation is a big concern to every Sierra Leonean. “We’re finding problems with water supply as wells dry up and rivers run dry, changes in rainfall levels and an increasing risk of flooding… all from the indiscriminate logging of forests. We see the effects of cutting trees all over Freetown, where forests are cut away to make room for private construction projects.” Isatu Conteh, Sesay’s first wife, said their hand-dug well runs dry for several months during the dry season. She said, “We struggle for water. The place is so hot now and the heavy winds threaten our house. We are also afraid of the fires that farmers light to clear the grasses.” In Sierra Leone’s overarching National Adaptation Plan, 2021, they identify environmental risks. “Unregulated overexploitation of land and marine environments has resulted in substantial degradation, loss of habitat and biodiversity, air and water pollution and their related social and public health impacts.” They also note some of the challenges including “a weak regulatory and legal framework, policy incoherence, conflicting government mandates, low management capacity, inadequate coordination, and limited public awareness and education, data, and finance.” There is also little awareness among the rural population of the importance of forest management, knowledge and awareness of laws, rules and regulations (where they exist) and the long term effects of clearcut logging. Osman Kamara Bah owns four, gas-powered chainsaws. He operates in a neighbouring Chiefdom from Sesay. He said, “I used to cut trees for the Chinese, who were represented in the area by a local authority. We would pay the local chief, the landowner and the forest guards to get the logs from the bush to the city for export.” Bah said he switched from selling logs to the Chinese to cutting trees and milling boards for local sales. “I hire chainsaw operators from the area. I feed them twice a day and then leave them with several boards of their own so they can sell and make money. My boards, I take to Freetown to sell to timber yards, who then sell to construction companies and individuals.” In an article published in the journal “Land”, in 2019, called, “What Happened to the Forests of Sierra Leone?”, written by Njala University professors Richard A. Wadsworth and Aiah R. Lebbie, they state, “According to the 2015 Sierra Leone Country Report prepared as part of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Global Forest Assessment there has been no national forest inventory since 1975.” The article also highlights the “accepted wisdom” that the huge forest loss in Sierra Leone is recent, rapid and drastic. Due to a lack of data the amount of forested area in the country remains unknown. Outside of the Western Area, including Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, land tenure and ownership is often ambiguous. For example, the Paramount Chiefs have jurisdiction over the land in their Chiefdoms as “custodians” of the land, but recognise and acknowledge community claims, ancestral family lands and individual claims to land. The resulting ambiguity presents significant challenges to the development and improvement of forestland management. The District Councils and other traditional authorities tend to assume the rights of management but they often lack the capacity and clarity to protect lands from commercial use. In September 2018, the Government announced a complete suspension of timber cutting and said, “The public should notify the Ministry through the Director of Forestry of any illegal logging activities within their communities.” But, as with the several laws governing forests, environment and protected areas, the government dictate has had little to no effect on logging in areas around the country. That official ban was rescinded less than a year later and a sole timber exporter, Babadi Kamara, continued to load containers with logs and ship to China. Of specific interest to loggers and timber exporters is the African mahogany tree or Khaya anthotheca. But, because of habitat loss and degradation, along with selective cutting, K. anthotheca is listed as “vulnerable”, just shy of endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN Red List). The IUCN Red List was established in 1964, and has become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species. The Tigerwood or Lovoa trichilioides, sometimes called the African Walnut tree is also listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, yet it is harvested and exported freely from Sierra Leone and Guinea ports. Amongst the major threats is the unregulated harvesting of African Rosewood or Pterocarpus erinaceus for export to China. Rosewood is a hardwood used for furniture, flooring, decorative panels, etc. and is valued for its fine grain and pink-brown colours. Sierra Leone is a land of laws and government oversight institutions. The forests of Royanka and other parts of Sierra Leone fall under the protection and purview of the Ministry of Environment, created in 2019. Other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), and the forestry division have now been placed under the management of the Ministry of Environment. The National Tourist Board, Ministry of Lands, Housing and Country Planning and the Municipality and district councils all have their fingers in the mix of laws and implementation/enforcement of the laws. Sierra Leone has a system for logging concessions, tracking logs and monitoring forest reserves. Kamara, the Forest Conservator, said, “Our Ministry roadside checkpoints operate around the country looking for illegally cut logs. We have patrols that are supposed to monitor the logging stock to promote sustainable logging.” The Paramount Chief of the District, Kanda Kargbo III, said he tries to stop people from cutting so many trees. He said he has reported the matter to the Police but he doesn’t have the support of the government. He said, “The people here are very poor and they see quick money from timber cutters and tree buyers. We used to rely on the trees and bush for everything but that has all gone with the wind.” Paramount Chief Kargbo noted the weak laws and lack of implementation or enforcement of the laws as barriers to his authority and government intervention. He quotes from the Constitution of the Republic of Sierra Leone, in Section 7(1)a, “The State shall harness all the natural resources of the nation to promote national prosperity and an efficient, dynamic and self-reliant economy.” Section 28 of the Forestry Act, 1988 was amended by repealing and replacing the following new section, in 2022. 28.(1) A person who, without lawful authority, cuts, burns, uproots, damages or destroys a tree, removes timber or other forest produce, clears land… or conducts forest operation, in a national, commercial or community forest, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not less than Le15,000,000 (approximately $1,500 USD) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months or to both such fine and imprisonment. (2) A person who, without lawful authority, cuts, burns, up-roots, damages, or destroys vegetation… commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not less than Le10,000,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or to both such fine and imprisonment. (9) A person who, obstructs or hinders a forest officer in the exercise of his powers and duties under this Act, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not less than Le10,000,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 3 months or to both such fine and imprisonment.” Chief Pa Alimamy Kamara of Bureh Chiefdom, in the Port Loko District, said most of the chiefdoms across the country are being logged. “If you stand up and resist the deforestation, the community will band together against you. They are starving, desperate for money and the bush and forests are the only sources of money. So they have no choice.” Green Scenery is a local NGO working on environmental and land rights. Joseph Rahall, the Executive Director, said, “Our trees are our hearts and lungs. The importance of our forests cannot be overstated. From oxygen, water, food, climate, habitat and beyond. Each tree cut affects our whole eco-system and we are slowly but massively reducing our very lives… we are making our own deathbeds.” He noted the shortsighted, poverty-driven and illegal logging. “We only see the shortterm monetary gain but we have our futures to think about,” Rahall said. Tommy Garnett is Director of the NGO, Environmental Foundation for Africa, that’s been working in Sierra Leone for the past 25-years. He said, “Not having enough information about the status of our forests means that we are taking decisions in the dark that could come back to haunt us. Every action we take to destroy the environment is an action taken against ourselves.” He said if the land continues to be degraded and deforested, people will have no choice but to migrate into the city. “I think we are sleepwalking into a very difficult future, because of the fact that we are not managing our forests the way we should.”

Freetown’s tree planting panacea to climate change

By Emma Black

In August 2017, a hillside on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s crowded capital city, collapsed causing a mudslide that killed more than 1,100 people and caused more than $14 million USD in damage. Mustapha Dumbuya, 40, lived in the Juba area very close to the catastrophe. He said, “I saw huge mansions and ‘pan-bodies’ (zinc and stick buildings) on the hill come sliding down. I had neighbours washed away in the rushing waters. I saw the land kicked off the hill by heavy rains and I’m lucky to be alive.”

“There were hundreds of people living in the area and they lost their homes, properties and some lost their lives,” he added. “That was almost the first time I thought about what we were doing to the land. That was the first time I knew about the effect of cutting the trees to build houses and deforestation.”

Dumbuya became an active advocate for tree planting and preserving the Juba area forests. “We need to protect ourselves and our future,” he added. Dumbuya is now a member of a community group called, Skill Pool Sierra Leone (SPSL), who are busy nursing a variety of trees to be replanted along the mudslide path and surrounding hills. The organization was given money through the Freetown City Council (FCC) to develop a seedling nursery and plant trees while teaching community representatives about the need to care for trees. The group planted more than 6,000 trees in 2021-22 and said they will plant another 800 trees in a neighbouring community.

Just after the mudslide, the World Bank did a “Sierra Leone Multi-City Hazard Review and Risk Assessment (Vol. 2): Freetown City Hazard and Risk Assessment”. The report noted, “Nature-based solutions can help mitigate flood, drought, erosion, and landslide (hazards) as well as decrease vulnerability to climate change while creating multiple benefits to the environment and local communities.” In Freetown, the Report said, “There are ongoing low-cost community measures such as tree planting initiatives that will reduce flooding and land sliding.”

The Mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, who assumed office in May 2018, listed the issues faced by Freetownians. “We experience challenges in the form of deforestation leading to landslides, in the destruction of our coastal mangroves, in the growth of informal settlements with unhealthy living conditions, through breathing polluted air, and in the effects of climate change that we experience through extreme heat, flooding and rising sea levels.”

The FCC Mayor and an imported team of advisors and consultants developed a far-reaching, comprehensive and ambitious program of city development that was launched in January 2019 called, “Transform Freetown”. This guiding document outlined targets from increasing tax revenue to building low-cost housing… from teaching literacy to creating jobs… from decongesting traffic to greening the city – and planting trees.

While in New York for peripheral meetings around the UN General Assembly meeting, on 23 September 2022, the FCC Mayor bragged they had planted 630,000 trees since May 2018 and she predicted they will have planted 800,000 trees by December 2022.

Lyndon Baines Johnson is the Project Coordinator for the Freetown the Tree Town campaign. He clarified that the campaign includes parts of the western area peninsula, which is technically not part of the city of Freetown. He said around the Aberdeen Creek area in the western part of Freetown, they planted 60,000 trees. He added, “We planted trees in some schools, in people’s private compounds, around churches and mosques and even around hospitals that had space.”

Baines Johnson said there were 217 community nurseries in 13 areas who provide seedlings. Then there are community groups who plant the trees and individuals then take pictures and track the trees on a tree tracker app via mobile phone. These people are also supposed to water the trees during the dry season. Each of the “trackers” is paid a monthly salary of Le1,200,000 and Le400,000 per month for transportation (approximately $90 USD). Baines Johnson said some of the trackers have up to 1,000 trees in their portfolios.

Twelve economic and non-economic species of trees (mango, mangrove, teak, neem, moringa, cashew, African wattle, tamarind, cashew and flamboyant) were selected based on biodiversity needs and slope stabilization needs.

The British-based INGO, Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA), is one of the city’s tree-planting specialists and implementing partners. Vincent Charlie, the Field Manager for EFA, said 550,000 trees have been planted since 2020 and 400,000 more planted during the 2022 rainy season. He said 62 reforestation areas were targeted for planting by 10 community groups and they planted 60,000 mangroves along Aberdeen Creek, a watershed stream and bay area in the western part of Freetown.

Charlie said, “Aberdeen’s population has grown tremendously over the past ten years because of the beach and proximity to downtown Freetown. People have been banking the river and bay area to build homes. When I was a boy, the area behind the golf club, which has been here for more than 60-years, was almost entirely mangrove swamp. But now, people have reclaimed land and cut down the old mangrove growth.”


A high-profile school tree planting partnership was also announced by the Freetown City Council. According to Baines Johnson of the FCC, more than 30 schools were targeted as places to plant trees. But, the tree planting efforts on school property fell short of success.

Momoh Abdul is a Junior Secondary School teacher and part of the Integrated Science Department of Methodist Girls High School, in Freetown. He said, “On 26 September 2022, FCC trained teachers from 50 schools on how to plant trees and the value of trees.

Abdul grew up in the neighbourhood where he now teaches. He described his childhood, which included “running and climbing through the trees”. He said, “But, as the Mayor identified, so many people moved into the area after the war and continue to encroach on every yard of land, there are hardly any trees left.”

The school compound is a luscious area of bushes and some trees but there is room for more, which is why the FCC wanted to partner with the school. Abdul said, “Twenty trees were planted during a school vacation period when the compound was basically empty. Only four trees remain because the compound cleaners cut the trees while ‘brushing’, the tall grass.”

According to Abdulai A Macarthy, the Principal of Vine Memorial Secondary School, “Ten trees were planted but only five of the trees have survived due to the hard rocky soil.”

Emmile Dumbuya, a JSS3 teacher and head of the Tree Club at Freetown Secondary School for Girls, said, “It was sometime in April 2022, when the FCC tree planting people went to the school and asked for a place to plant the trees. Over 20 trees were planted but only a few started to grow.” He added some of the trees were flooded out during the rainy season and others didn’t grow because they were planted in rocky areas.

A JSS2 teacher, Sahr Jusu, at St Joseph Convent Secondary School said, “Out of the 15 trees planted, only three remain. Most of the trees were cut because we’re building a new structure in the compound.”

Tree planting is known as a simplistic solution to the complex problem of climate change. Many African countries are pushing to address the climate crisis by planting trees including Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Mauritania. In fact, tree planting has become everybody’s favourite climate response… seen by donors as a worthy tax-payer funded initiative and by governments as cash infusions to stretched budgets. But, it will probably be the next generation or generations unborn who will report whether these tree planting efforts had any affect.

To this day, the brown scar marking the 2017 landslide mars the green hillside of Juba, where Dumbuya and others are planting trees. “We’re making a difference. The trees are making a difference and future generations will be protected from the kind of devastation we saw,” he said. “But, our generation must learn from the disaster, which we caused.”


Hospitality sector no longer hospitable to women workers By Emma Black Mama Sue’s Bar and Restaurant has been a local eating and drinking establishment in Freetown for over 17-years. Susan Koffey, operated a thriving eatery specialising in Nigerian and Ghanaian food and employing 10 food service and cooking staff, until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone. By mid-July 2020, “Mama Susan” had laid off eight of her staff members, all women, reduced the amount of food she prepared, and lost millions of Leones in sales under the COVID-19 prevention measures instituted by the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC). “I have only two members of staff left and I laid off eight others because business is so bad at the moment. There’s no profit anymore and I’m just trying to survive and sustain my family, for now,” Mama Susan lamented. “Because of the restrictions, the preventive measures under COVID-19, the curfew, and reduced hours for bars and restaurants, my business has suffered,” she added. The hospitality sector has been the hardest hit by the NaCOVERC COVID-19 prevention regulations. The night curfew and a mandatory reduction in hours of operations of bars and restaurants (two to three hours before the curfew) have greatly reduced the income of bar and restaurant owners, which directly affects food service, kitchen, and bar staff. Indirectly, the curfew and reduction in operating hours have also negatively affected people who made their living from activities around the bars such as commercial sex workers, petty traders selling cigarettes and chewing gum, taxi drivers, etc. The curfew significantly affected the economic activities of people who work at night – waitresses, bar owners, commercial motorbike riders, taxi drivers, commercial sex workers, etc. The vast majority of workers who lost their jobs in the hospitality industry, had their working hours reduced and their incomes slashed are women. Jestina Amara is a waitress at Krio Wendy’s, a popular bar near the downtown business district of Freetown. She is luckily still employed although she no longer receives the monthly salary of Le750,000 she received up to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jestina said, “Because of the COVID-19 restrictions and curfew, over 20 of my friends have lost their job – they mainly worked as waitresses and bar servers. Two of our colleagues were laid off and left Freetown for their villages when the restrictions came into effect.” Between March 2020 and March 2021 – from the announcement of the first case of COVID-19 in Sierra Leone to the end of the State of Emergency – the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC) instituted a variety of measures meant to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the cases of the disease and deaths. The night curfew, reduced hours of operations, and closure of bars and restaurants had perhaps the biggest impact on the economy and lives of a large proportion of women. NaCOVERC’s Risk Communication Lead, Harold Thomas, said the reduction in working hours and closure of bars and restaurants was one of the measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. He noted, “It was pretty much the same all over the world. Countries and cities closed bars and restaurants because they were potential ‘superspreaders’ of the virus.” Thomas added, “Allowing bars and restaurants to be open for regular hours would potentially amplify transmission of the virus. In bars and restaurants, it’s almost impossible to maintain all the protocols of facemasks and physical distancing so it was better to reduce the time people spend in these potentially vulnerable places.” Julius Spencer PhD, of NaCOVERC, said bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are social venues where crowds gather – often with weak prevention protocols such as physical distancing and facemasks. “So, NaCOVERC tried to prevent significant transmission by limiting time in social venues and even religious halls or marketplaces,” Dr. Spencer added. Restaurants and bars were required to close up to 2-3 hours before the 11 pm curfew. This further restricted their income but, according to Thomas, this was to allow customers and workers get home before the curfew. Robert Dauda Korsu PhD, is an economist and the Executive Director of the Economic, Social and Financial Research Institute (ESFRI), based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He explained that the closure limit of 9:00 pm and curfew time of 11:00 pm, for bars and restaurants create a difference of 2 hours. This he said leaves no room for community or neighbourhood sales even where there may be demand up to 10:30 pm. Korsu recommended, “Harmonising the two limits with preference for the later time could have played a mitigating role on livelihood reduction for women. It requires calibrating the optimal implementation time to manage both economic livelihood impact and the expected health result.” Mohamed Bah is the manager of the China-Sierra Leone Friendship Society, also known as “China House” near the government’s Youyi Building in downtown Freetown. He said, “Because of the COVID-19 regulations, business is not good. People used to spend time, buy drinks and food… but now they don’t stop in and only order takeaway.” Bah had to lay off two women workers at the facility because the business income had dropped significantly. The other three staff, all women, were put on reduced hours of work – workers now work alternate months and are not paid for the month they are off. “I couldn’t afford to pay the staff so I had to lay some off and cut the hours of others,” he said. According to Dr. Korsu, “the truncated operations of bars and restaurants had a direct impact on their income. The result of these limitations was: reduced employment (in a sector with high vulnerable employment). Once income is reduced due to lower turnover and fewer hours of operations, some workers will be laid off to cushion the effect of reduced incomes.” The indirect impact, identified by Korsu, involved petty traders/economic agents in the neighbourhood of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs whose economic activities are linked to operations of the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Korsu summed up by saying, “The overall impact of the curfew and early closure of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs negatively affected mostly women. For the petty trade sector (informal sales agents in the vicinity of bars and restaurants) women are impacted to a far greater extent than men.” Mama Susan now only prepares a small amount of rice and sauce at her restaurant. She has closed the bar portion of her facility. “I used to cook three bags of rice every week. Now, I only cook one bag of rice for a whole week,” she said. Her business is barely hanging on. She said she understands the need for restrictions but those same restrictions have a devastating impact on women.


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