Women of Sierra Leone

4 March 2011 to 5 June 2012 

Please note that this exhibition has now closed

An exhibition of 42 portraits by British photographer Lee Karen Stow, which paid tribute to the strength, resilience and beauty of the women of Sierra Leone.

The women of Sierra Leone

portrait photo of 3 women

Copyright Lee Karen Stow

The legacy of the slave trade 

During the period of the transatlantic slave trade, Bunce Island in Sierra Leone was of one of the largest slave forts in West Africa. By the late 18th century, as the abolition of the slave trade approached, Sierra Leone was chosen as a location for a new colony for former slaves and the capital of Freetown was founded.

Today the United Nations ranks Sierra Leone as one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2002 the country emerged from an 11 year civil war in which many of its people were killed, maimed, raped and displaced. Despite improvements in infrastructure, overseas aid and investment, the country suffers from abject poverty and high unemployment. 

Conditions for women 

Women especially face immense hardship, lacking equal access to education, economic opportunities and their rights to life and health. Every year thousands of women die, needlessly, giving birth. Violence against women is common. Female genital mutilation causes infection and death. Displaced girls resort to prostitution for income. 

The 42 photographs that were shown in this exhibition captured the many emotions experienced by these women including courage and, most importantly, hope.

smiling woman with a basket on her head

From a basket carried on her head this beautiful young woman sells charcoal to light the fires and cooking pots of Kroo Bay in Freetown, Sierra Leone, a slum to several thousand people. Copyright Lee Karen Stow

"I've been to many parts of the developing world, but I'd never seen anything like Sierra Leone before. They were coming out of a civil war and I'd never seen such abject poverty - or such spirit, and a determination and willingness to get on with life."
Lee Karen Stow, Liverpool Echo interview

portrait photo of a woman

Copyright Lee Karen Stow

The 42 project 

portrait photo of a woman holding a child

"For the last three decades Freetown has been twinned with my birthplace Kingston upon Hull in the UK to foster cultural understanding and friendships. In 2007 when I began to document the lives of the women of Sierra Leone, life expectancy for women was around 42. A year into the project I too turned 42. My life expectancy, as a white woman living in the West, is almost double at 83. I became angry at what is a violation of human rights. 

42 aims to show the beauty, spirit, hope and the value to society of women not just in Sierra Leone, but women everywhere, who wake each morning with the belief that one day, life really will get better." Lee Karen Stow

Since February 2007, Lee Karen Stow has been working on an independent, evolving and long-term documentary photography and written study of women in Sierra Leone. The project is in collaboration with the women of Sierra Leone themselves. 

Lee facilitates photography training for the women under her other project called 'Women with Cameras' (formerly Wilberforce Women). She also raises funds for the women to visit the UK for further skills' training and for their photography and computer equipment.

See Lee Karen Stow's website for further information and images.

Interview with Lee Karen Stow

Lee Karen Stow talks about the exhibition and the women in Sierra Leone who inspired it.

All the photographs featured in the video © Lee Karen Stow. 

The woman I am

In January 2011 Lee Karen Stow led a week of photography workshops at the International Slavery Museum with the Women Asylum Seekers Together group in Liverpool.

Blog posts

portrait photo of a smiling woman

42, then and now

22 May

As her rather wonderful exhibition ’42’ Women of Sierra Leone closes in just two weeks on Tuesday 5 June, I asked photographer Lee Karen Stow for an update on the project. Read more about 42, then and now

A lady sits with her fist in the air

Grace Brown

1 March

It is with great sadness that I tell you that Grace Brown, the head of the Sierra Leone women’s boxing team has passed away. She was 43. Grace is featured in the exhibition ‘42’ Women of Sierra Leone at the International Slavery Museum, a display of work by photojournalist Lee Karen Stow. Read more about Grace Brown