Raising rural women’s voices in Sierra Leone

FATMATA Binta Jalloh grew up in Makeni, the largest city in the northern province of Sierra Leone. Her mother was a nurse who used to go to rural villages to treat women.

“She often told me about women who were victims of gender-based violence but who depended on their husbands to feed themselves and their children,” Fatmata recalls, adding “Sadly, this is still happening today.”

“Most of the issues affecting women are because they are not financially independent; so they have to rely on abusive husbands or family members,” said Fatmata. “They [rural women] deserve equal opportunities, but society makes it very difficult.”

Today, through her work as a gender and youth expert in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, she helps rural women access technical training, inputs or other opportunities to make the most of their agricultural activities.

In another remote village, Foday Kamara grew up in a subsistence farming family. They often lacked adequate food for all family members. This led his parents to send him at the age of 10 to live with his aunt. Today he is the director of a local NGO that supports youth and women’s empowerment.

Fatmata and Foday’s commitment to championing rural women in Sierra Leone led them to participate in a project of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) implemented in collaboration with the NGO Solidaridad West Africa. The project equips women and men with the skills and knowledge to thrive in the agricultural sector through responsible investments in agriculture. It also strengthens the position of rural women to be able to participate in decision-making processes.

FAO and NGO Solidaridad West Africa launched a capacity development programme for rural women in Sierra Leone to help them access decent employment in agriculture and make responsible investments as entrepreneurs.

Two-thirds of families in Sierra Leone rely on subsistence farming and petty trading as sources of food and income. Rural women rarely have another source of income on which to rely.

Maud Oustry, FAO Capacity Development Expert, said, “Being able to invest in their agricultural activities represents a qualitative leap forward that would enable rural women in particular to shift from subsistence farming to agribusiness, expanding their economic opportunities.”

However, despite significant efforts to level the field for women in recent years, gender inequality is still prevalent in Sierra Leone. While rural women in the country represent 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, they face significant barriers to access basic resources such as land, training or services.

Fatmata explains, “Most rural women farmers are illiterate. They don’t have business skills, and they can rarely access finance. Even if they do, perceptions and societal norms are a hurdle.

“If women had the same access to productive resources, services and decision-making processes as men, they would be able to invest in agriculture, develop their agricultural activities and become agri-entrepreneurs with their own businesses,” said Oustry.

In November 2022, FAO and Solidaridad launched a capacity development programme for rural women as part of the project in Sierra Leone. It aims to enable women to access decent employment in agriculture and to themselves make responsible investments in agriculture as entrepreneurs.

The first step is building the skills of rural women and promoting their participation in decision-making processes. “Women do about 70 percent of the agricultural work but when it comes to decision making, it’s the men. They decide about everything: production, selling, use of resources,” explains Foday.

Fatmata and Foday, along with 25 other representatives of rural women’s organisations, participated in a Training of Trainers.

Foday said, “The material was oriented to help them [rural women] analyse their situation, identify the challenges that prevent them from investing in agriculture and outline potential solutions to address them.”

In order to ensure women are informed about their rights, the participants also studied regulatory frameworks, including recently enacted legislation that addresses issues such as women’s access to finance, employment opportunities, equal pay, maternity leave and protection of customary land rights.

Fatmata said, “These are rights for which women have been battling for during decades. Knowing about them has given rural women confidence and a sense that things are changing.”

Dialogue sessions were also held where women could present their challenges and recommendations to local authorities and discuss a way forward.

“The dialogue sessions were very powerful,” said Foday. “For instance, women were telling the ordeals they go through to access land despite the new law granting them customary lands rights. Many local decision-makers were unaware of the legislation since its popularisation is still underway.”

As a result of the dialogue with the paramount chief of Kambia, he committed to coordinate with other village chiefs to ensure that women’s rights are respected.

Women were also invited to attend the district council monthly meetings to follow up on other commitments made during the dialogue session. “This is very important because it means women will now be involved in decision-making at local and district level,” said Fatmata.

During the training events, participants learned that a responsible investment in agriculture benefits not only the investors but also the communities, including women, men and the environment. It contributes to sustainable development, enhances food security and nutrition and respects human rights.

Fatmata said, “This was an eye opener for many people because in every community we have had experiences of companies polluting the land and waters. Now we know that we not only need to ask for a fee for land use but also ensure that their investments are sustainable, environmentally, economically and socially.”

By the end of 2024, the programme will have worked with 420 rural women and 210 local male leaders on the importance of women’s participation in decision-making processes. As a next step, FAO and Solidaridad are following up on the commitments made to improve rural women’s participation in responsible agricultural investments.


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