Sierra Leone: what outcomes for a civil society harshly impacted by long-lasting crisis?

News - Sierra Leone has been afflicted by numerous crisis these past decades: in particular, both the civil war and the Ebola epidemic have had huge and long lasting impacts on the society. If most of these repercussions are obviously disastrous, the Sierra Leone' society is not giving up and some unexpected positive outcomes have also emerged from these severe crisis.


Participants of a reconciliation program in Sierra Leone. Source: Sara Terry.

The civil war impact: a traumatized society
From 1991 to 2002, the country has been the subject of a disastrous civil war, originating from the attack of two villages by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), which made more than 50.000 casualties and harmed countless others, displacing 2,6 million persons – which constitutes half the population. Violence was also aggravated by the use of drugs such as cocaine and gunpowder, which was given to soldiers-children in order to make them addicted and dependent.
Though peace was signed nearly fifteen years ago, the society has been durably and harshly impacted by the horrors of this civil war. Some NGOs specialized in favoring communication between parties, in the hopes of getting the population to forgive and heal.  Founded in 2007, Fambul Tok is an example of such an NGO: by leading discussions which promote confessions and forgiveness, founded on the cases of the Gacaca (the custom courts used in Rwanda, amongst others), the NGO endeavors to recreate social links and relations. In exchange for the citizens’ participations, the organization give them a slight remuneration. On the whole, the discussions last for two days, amongst which each participant is encouraged to tell their stories, and a tree symbolizing the recreated union between the populations is eventually planted.

Reconciliation programs have not only positive outcomes
However, the consequence of such projects are not as positive as could have been expected. According to a recent study published in Science and led by two professors, Oeindrilla Dube and Jacobus Cilliers, respectively teaching at the University of New York and Georgetown, as well as Bilal Siddiqi, economist working at the World Bank, talking about and in effect re-living traumatic events can make them harder to forget and aggravate psychological scars: depressions and post-traumatic syndromes such as anxiety were overall 36% more frequent in the communities having benefited from reconciliation programs than those having been left alone.

However, these types of programs should not be leading only to negative outcomes, far from it: participants were also deemed more implicated in the community, more willing to participate to building public infrastructures such as hospitals or schools, and more willing to participate to social events or religious associations. In effect, reconciliation programs seem to have enable most of the participants to feel fully engaged in their society rather than feeling marginalized and apart from it.
In fact, the conclusion that can be drawn from this study is not that reconciliation programs are useless or inadequate, but rather that the participants need to be carefully approached and accompanied, especially at long-term rather than during a few days. It seems to be the next point on which NGOs and the overall civil society should focus on in order to get the populations to forgive and heal.

The Ebola epidemic: another crisis, other outcomes
Sierra Leone was also recently severely affected by the Ebola epidemic, which has officially ended the 7th November of 2016, after having made more than 4.000 casualties and broadly infected more than 14.000 persons.
A change of perceptions among the population of medicine and traditions
The epidemic also changed Sierra Leone’s perceptions of medicine and traditions, mainly in positive ways: prevention practices, seen through, for instance, the growing frequency of hand-washing stations, are more and more common. Genital mutilations, traditionally done by women on their daughters as an initiation into womanhood, have also declined, as they were recognized as facilitating the transmission of Ebola.

An unexpected outcome: the proliferation of violence against girls and women
Unfortunately, it had also more grim effects on the society, such as the proliferation of rapes and general violence against girls and women: the Program of Development of the United Nations as well as NGOs such as UNICEF and Save the Children raised the issue in their recent reports on Sierra Leone. The link between the Ebola epidemic and rapes cam seem a bit far-fetched: however, many explanations are given in the reports. One factor would be the restriction of movement the epidemic implied, given that confinement, quarantines and an overall curfew were implemented in the country. Furthermore, Ebola has raised the economic pressure on families, as many were ill and unable to work: many adolescents were forced to turn to prostitution in order to compensate for the monetary loss – taking into account that the price of food also raised at the same time. As prostitution placed young girls into a very vulnerable state, many among them were also submitted to rapes by men who took the opportunity to abuse them without consequences.

Léa Guinet, Coordinator at CIPADH


Pierre Lepidi, "Dans les villages de Sierra Leone, la réconciliation n'a pas que du bon", Le Monde, 16 May 2016. Available at:

Sciences&Avenir, "En Sierra Leone, Ebola a changé le rapport à la médecine et aux traditions", 12 May 2016. Available at:

Elisabeth Hoffman, "Paths to healing in war-torn Sierra Leone", PeaceBuilder, 20th October 2008. Available at: 

Gilles Pialoux, "Ebola a provoqué une épidémie de viols: comment expliquer ce cercle vicieux", L'Obs, 7 May 2016. Available at: