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Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, an English-speaking country located on the west coast of Africa, is a similar size to Ireland with a population of 8.1 million.  Over half that population lives below the national poverty line and experiences high levels of vulnerability.  Women and girls bear the biggest burden of poverty – experiencing high rates of gender based violence and teenage pregnancy as well as low access to education and resources.  It has one of the highest maternal and under-five mortality rates globally while almost half the population is food insecure.  Irish Aid’s programme in Sierra Leone focuses, therefore, on the empowerment of women and girls.

Woman at Panlap - UNFPA Gates teenage Girls Education programme, Makeni Town, Sierra Leone. Africa 2019. © Phil Behan - DFAT

Woman at Panlap - UNFPA Gates teenage Girls Education programme, Makeni Town, Sierra Leone. Africa 2019.‌ © Phil Behan - DFAT

  • Overview
  • Background
  • Our Work
  • Results


Population: 8.07 million
Proportion of population living on less than $1.25 a day: 60%
 Ranking on UN Human Development Index: 182 out of 186
 Partner Country since:   2005

Women's empowerment in Kunike Barina Chiefdom, Tonkolili Region, Sierra Leone. Africa 2019. © Phil Behan - DFAT

Women's empowerment in Kunike Barina Chiefdom, Tonkolili Region, Sierra Leone. Africa 2019. © Phil Behan - DFAT

Ireland and Sierra Leone

Ireland has been supporting the people of Sierra Leone to rebuild their country since the end of an eleven year civil war in 2002.  We first opened a Development Cooperation Office in 2005 and upgraded to an Embassy in 2014 as further evidence of our commitment to continue to deepen and strengthen the bilateral relationship and close ties. 

Since then, Irish Aid has invested over €200 million in development initiatives through programmes funded directly from Headquarters, by the Embassy and through partnership with Irish, international and local NGOs and UN agencies.  These have been long-term high-impact initiatives centred around our core values of combatting poverty and addressing inequality and vulnerability, governance and rule of law, rights and services for women and girls, education, health, nutrition and food security. 

We have set out our objectives in our five year “Ireland in Sierra Leone” Strategy, which runs from 2019 – 2023.  Our long-term ambition is that, through political and policy engagement and development cooperation, women and girls living in poverty will contribute to and benefit from a more inclusive, resilient and equitable Sierra Leone.    

Our Strategy identifies four core outcomes for our work:

• women and children have improved nutritional status;
• women and girls are empowered to realise their potential and their rights;
• girls access and benefit from quality education;
• citizens – in particular women - are more empowered to engage with inclusive and accountable democratic institutions and processes.



Sierra Leone achieved independence from the UK in 1961 and was ruled by one party from 1968-1992. Between 1991 and 2002, the country was devastated by a brutal civil war. The conflict left more than 50,000 people dead, much of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, and over two million people displaced in neighbouring countries. 

Since the end of the conflict in 2002, Sierra Leone has made considerable progress towards peace and development. The security situation in the country is stable.  Sierra Leone is currently ranked 163 of 190 in the World Bank’s Doing Business report.  The country is abundant in natural resources, including bauxite, rutile, iron ore, diamonds and gold. There is also good rainfall and agricultural potential.

 The Cotton Tree is a Freetown Landmark. Sierra Leone

However, significant economic and development challenges continue to face the country as it builds systems and services for its people. Some of the ongoing challenges include extremely low levels of human development, significant gaps in basic service delivery, a lack of employment opportunities, low incomes and widespread corruption.  On top of this, the Ebola epidemic, which struck Sierra Leone in 2014, significantly set back the country’s development agenda.

Sierra Leone is ranked 182 out of 189 countries on the 2020 United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) - Ireland is currently ranked 2. More than half of the population of Sierra Leone lives on less than €1.25 a day and life expectancy is 55 years old. The infant mortality rate, while dropping is still very high at 81 deaths per 1,000 live births and the under-five mortality rate is 109 per 1,000 live births, close to the highest in the world.

A girl walks down Kroobay Alley in Freetown, Sierra Leono. Photo: Irish Aid / Paul Sheehan

Sierra Leone has a heavy dependency on foreign aid. There are a number of European companies heavily invested in the mining and large-scale farming sectors with access to significant resources. 


Our Work


In Sierra Leone, malnutrition is a key factor contributing to high rates of child and maternal mortality. This is further complicated by high rates of teenage pregnancy with early motherhood impacting on adolescent girls’ own health and their ability to care for their infants, who are often underweight. Addressing adolescent nutrition is necessary in order to break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition through improved access to information and services.

In partnership with the WHO, FOCUS1000, Directorate of Food and Nutrition (DFN), UNN-REACH and the SUN Secretariat, we engage with key strategic stakeholders (Government Ministries, CSOs, etc.) to advocate for greater priority of child malnutrition, food insecurity and child wellbeing. We continue to work to ensure that such engagements translate into policy response, increased resource allocation and legislation, such as the Breast Milk Substitute Act of 2021.  In addition, the Mission’s engagement and support to the SUN Secretariat and UNN-REACH enabled the Government of Sierra Leone to conduct a National Food Systems Dialogue in 2021 which enhanced its participation at the Food Systems Summit in New York in September 2021.

Our support to UNICEF and WFP in collaboration with the Ministry of Health’s Directorate of Food & Nutrition (DFN) helps to address issues of severe acute and moderate acute malnutrition in children under five years old, targeting nutritionally vulnerable populations.

Partnership is ongoing with Welthungerhilfe and Action Against Hunger (AAH)  in developing integrated nutrition sensitive agri-food programmes in line with the changing global climatic conditions at community levels.

Gender Equality

Adolescent girls and women are amongst the most marginalised and vulnerable groups in Sierra Leone. Cultural norms and traditions, poverty, weak access to information and services, and a lack of protection contribute to high levels of discrimination and exclusion. This is compounded by women’s lack of decision-making power over critical decisions affecting their lives. Changes are required at various levels to address drivers of vulnerability and to create an enabling environment for adolescent girls to reach their potential. This includes addressing the drivers that contribute to high levels of child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), including female genital mutilation (FGM), and supporting initiatives which make information, services and development opportunities more accessible.

Through our partnership with UNFPA we are supporting the PROTECT (Protecting and Empowering Girls to Reach their Full Potential) project, which aims to reduce adolescent pregnancy in Sierra Leone. We are also supporting the UN Women led POWERED (Protection and Empowerment of Women for Equality, Resilience and Development) project, which supports the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, in its implementation of the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment policy.

Group of children in school uniforms outside Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: Irish Aid

Our Embassy also partners with Save the Children on a project employs an integrated and multi-sector (social, health, economic, institutional) approach to address the root causes and contributing factors to teenage pregnancy in four urban communities, reaching over 17k adolescents. Our partnership with International Rescue Committee (IRC) on the AGEPP (Adolescent Girls Empowerment and Protection Project) supports the empowerment of adolescent girls to reach their full potential through advocacy, skills acquisition and financial empowerment.

Our Embassy has built a strong partnership with the Rainbo Initiative. Our support focuses on institutional strengthening of the organisation to allow for free medical and psychosocial support to be provided to survivors of SGBV. Ireland has also partnered with Purposeful Productions, a feminist movement-building hub for adolescent girls, on its ‘Wati Kura’ project.  This project will ensure sustained action to end FGM in Sierra Leone and will be implemented in ten districts with high levels of FGM and will target over 10,000 girls.  Finally, a partnership was also created with Girl 2 Girl Empowerment Movement for strengthening of Forum Against Harmful Practices (FAHP) for the coordination of FGM reduction in Sierra Leone. The project supports FAHP to advocate to policy makers to prioritise FGM issues; and communities, especially women and girls, are aware of the harmful effects of FGM and can prevent it.


Sierra Leone has made significant gains in enrolment, although learning outcomes remain low with inequities in access, weak sector governance and ineffective management. While gender parity at primary level improved, girls’ enrolment reduces sharply at secondary level. An estimated 41 percent of disadvantaged girls have never attended school, and for those who do, retention and completion rates are low—and decrease significantly across the education levels. The introduction of the Free Quality Education Programme increased girls’ access to education. Ireland in Sierra Leone continues to build on earlier work in education to scale up its engagement with a clear focus on improving access to quality education for children, especially vulnerable girls.

Ireland continues to support the government’s flagship Free Quality Education programme through a World Bank led Multi-Donor Trust Fund. This support aims to improve the management of the education system, teaching practices and learning conditions. Over 2 million pupils are benefitting from this programme. In addition, we have supported UNICEF and the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education for a comprehensive review of the issues faced by Out-of-School (OOS) Children, particularly girls, which has identified the barriers children (especially girls) face, in accessing education. The ensuing strategy is currently being developed to work in tandem with the Radical Inclusion Policy.

Members of a Savings and loans group, organised by Concern with funding from Irish Aid.


Sierra Leone faces ongoing challenges in relation to national cohesion and political tensions. The political landscape is highly polarised and this is likely to remain so in the run up to national elections in 2023.  Despite the critical role that women in Sierra Leone play at the community and national level, they continue to face challenges in participating in politics and elections. The government has proposed a “Gender Empowerment Bill”, which, when passed into law, will give a minimum quota of 30% to women in appointed and elected positions, women’s participation in political and decision-making processes remains a challenge.  While the civil society landscape in Sierra Leone is vibrant, with a long history of activism, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) require capacity building support to enable them to participate fully in the development of Sierra Leone.

Ireland continues to work with UNDP to support the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) for the establishment of a comprehensive civil register that will aid the extraction of a reliable voter register available for the 2023 elections. We have supported also through UNDP the organisational capacity strengthening of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sierra Leone.

We continue to support Social Enterprise Development Sierra Leone (SEND SL) to promote women’s participation in politics and governance in the three Eastern region districts of Kono, Kenema and Kailahun and in the Southern Region of Bonthe.Ireland also supports the Search for Common Ground (SFCG) to promote women-led approaches in social cohesion, local-level accountability and local development processes across five districts.

Our Embassy has supported also Human Rights Defenders Network Sierra Leone (HRDNSL) to enhance its organisational capacity for improved human rights advocacy and policies in Sierra Leone. Ireland continues to partner with the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) to understand how best to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on key governance and accountability issues, including the next electoral cycle and support for overall preparedness.


At a national level, Sierra Leone has made significant progress in these areas:

  • Sierra Leone’s Under-Five Mortality Rate has decreased from 156 to 122 per 1,000 live births from 2013 to 2019.
  • Sierra Leone Maternal Mortality Rate has decrease from 1,165 deaths per 100,000 live births to 717 from 2013 to 2019.
  • Proportion of population living below the international poverty line: decrease from 75% to 57.9%
  • Prevalence of stunting among children under-fives has decreased from 37.9% to 30% between 2013 and 2019.
  • Prevalence of wasting among children has decreased from 9.3% to 5% between 2013 and 2019.
  • Enactment of the Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitute Bill (following on from the Breast Milk Substitute Act of 2021).
  • Conducting a National Food Systems Dialogue which culminated in a Synthesis Support, launched by the Vice President.
  • The opening by government in 2020 of 5 one-stop-centres in 5 districts to provide free services for survivors of SGBV and established a SGBV helpline #116.
  • The launch by government in 2020 of the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) Policy which aims to mainstream gender into all development and political processes in Sierra Leone.
  • Over 2 million children have access to basic education due to the Free Quality Education project, co-financed by the World Bank, EU, Ireland and UK.  Government continues to allocate 22% of its annual budget to education.
  • Overturning of the ban on pregnant girls attending school.
  • Approved the ‘Sierra Leone National Policy on Radical Inclusion in School’ that guarantees the education rights of all children across the country including pregnant girls and parent learners and children with disabilities.
  • Revision of Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education school curriculum to fully integrate comprehensive sexuality education at the primary and junior secondary school levels to help young people to explore and nurture positive values regarding gender and their sexual and reproductive health and rights as well as to develop critical thinking skills.
  • Abolishment of the Death Penalty
  • Acceptance by Government of UPR recommendations to adopt a modern law for the protection of Human Rights Defenders
  • Revision of the Human Rights Commission Act
  • Confirmation by main electoral management bodies that Covid-19 will have little or no effect on 2023 electoral timelines.

How we have helped:

  • Support to Action Against Hunger for the integration of nutrition into universal health care for children under 5 and adolescents, pregnant and lactating mothers at community levels; and tackling undernutrition through evidence generation in the Moyamba district. 
  • Support to WFP in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s Directorate of Food & Nutrition (DFN) on the targeted supplementary feeding programme for Moderate Acute Malnutrition (children aged 6-59 months and Pregnant and Lactating Women) in four districts.
  • Support to Helen Keller International on the Integration of Nutrition into routine health services including Vitamin A supplementation, deworming and family planning.
  • Support to WFP, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Statistics Sierra Leone to conduct the 2020 Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CCFSVA).
  • Support to the SUN Secretariat for the National Food Systems Dialogue ahead of the Food Systems Summit.
  • Our partner Rainbo Initiative continues to provide quality health and psychosocial services to survivors of SGBV and engage communities on SGBV prevention.
  • Ireland is part of the Multi-Donor Trust Fund led by the World Bank. The “Free Education” project supports policy and implementation coherence and strategic initiatives in the education sector, addresses the critical teacher quality and workforce management issues and supports school-based planning for improved school performance.
  • Ireland, along with UN Women co-leads on the Gender Donor Partner Group, which played a critical role in the overturning of the ban on pregnant women and girls attending school.  With support from Ireland, UN Women works with the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs to implement the GEWE policy.
  • Ireland long advocated for the removal of the death penalty, which was formally abolished in September 2021.
  • Support to Human Rights Defenders Network in their advocacy for a model law to protect Human Rights Defenders.


Read more about our work to reduce hunger

Visit our Hunger section to learn more about our approach to this immense challenge.