Sexual and Gender Base Violence: Is there a guarantee for the safety and Equality of our women and Girls in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone?
By: Ibrahim Sei Kamara
In 2002, Sierra Leone emerged from an eleven-year civil war characterized by unbearable crimes such as mutilation, rape, and sexual slavery, to name but a few. Women suffered the brunt of the conflict and experienced some of the most horrific acts of violence during the war. Yet, more than ten years following the end of the civil conflict, women, and young girls still continue to suffer from violence and discrimination. The Constitution of Sierra Leone Act Number (6) of 1991, clearly states that no law should discriminate against any person on the basis of gender, but in practice, women continue to face discrimination under formal, Islamic, and customary laws. Sexual and Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon that takes various forms in different contexts, depending on the culture of a given society or community, to the extent that those who are supposed to implement and protect the laws are generally ignorant or negligent in performing their role.
According to recent research, Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in West Africa suggests that this problem becomes predominantly acute in post-conflict countries. To such extent, it is widely estimated that during the decade-long civil unrest in Sierra Leone from 1991 - 2002, up to 250,000 women and girls were victims of SGBV. Rape was used steadily by all blocs and, although peace was declared in 2002, the distress of war has left scars which run through the fabric of households, families, and communities.
In the absence of formal law enforcement, especially in rural and challenged regions, and in light of the persistence of patriarchy and dearth of resources for women’s organizations, this story seeks to explore the value of engaging with men and boys in order to address the prevalence of SGBV in Sierra Leone. This is critical not only because SGBV affects both men and women, but because men’s participation in SGBV-interventions enables them to actively change community perceptions and values regarding SGBV.
Various forms of SGBV issues in post-conflict Sierra Leone includes but not limited to domestic violence, sexual assault, including rape of adults and minors, rape in marriage and school-related sexual abuse, as well as harmful practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM). It is difficult to know how many cases of gender violence go unreported, but many in Sierra Leone agree the country faces a serious problem (McKay, 2004; Park, 2006; Shaw, 2007).
At a national level, a number of legislative and policy frameworks have been developed since the end of the conflict which establishes a supportive and conducive environment for addressing SGBV, indicating a political will to reduce SGBV. In 2007, the Governmentof Sierra Leone adopted three Gender Acts - the Domestic Violence Act, the Devolution of Estates Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act. In June 2012, new, more stringent, Sexual Offenses Act, being n Act to protect children from offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography and provide for theestablishment of Special Courts for thetrial of such offences and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto and to help largely to end the culture of impunity.
Nonetheless, in a nation as desperately under-resourced as Sierra Leone, having been seriously affected by the recent Ebola outbreak in May 2014, and still struggling with a civil war-ravaged infrastructure, there are serious barriers to what legislative reforms can achieve. Further, in terms of law enforcement to implement this legislation, research shows that household violence is rarely considered a matter for the police. In some rural regions, in particular where traditional patriarchal power structures remain strong, cases of SGBV are often mediated by respected relatives and community elders: typically men (Denov and Maclure, 2006).
Over the last couple of years, the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) has recorded numerous instances of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), particularly in the provinces with high reported cases from the North of the country. While there have been some gains in terms of reducing SGBV across the country, recent data obtained from the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) show that there are rising incidents of domestic violence in the Western Area, particularly in aslum or low-income communities. At Mabayla, a slum in the eastern part of Freetown, an average of five complaints are filed with the police monthly by women who suffer physical, economic, and psychological violence.
Even more excruciating for victims is the unsupportive role of community chiefs in efforts at promoting justice and accountability for such crimes. Police records show that victims of domestic violence in the Mabayla community, who file complaints with the police, are allegedly harassed and intimidated by local chiefs for doing so.
What typically unfolds is that anoffender of domestic violence who is invited for questioning by the police would in turn file a complaint with a local chief, claiming that his wife has ‘brought shame’ to the community by reporting a family matter to the police. The chief would, in turn,sold the victim (woman) for bringing shame to the community and her family before imposing a stiff fine on her. So, in addition to the physical pain, she may have suffered, the chief would first humiliate her before imposing a very stiff fine. These huge fines have had far-fetched economic implications on the women, and have in some cases, stalled their economic activities. The women are ultimately forced to rely on the men for financial support, which is generally unreliable.
So what are the Sierra Leone Police and the Justice and legal system doing about this?
Police Officers at the Eastern Police Station in Freetown, whose mandate is to maintain law and order, told CARL employees that most of the cases are hardly prosecuted in court. When police officers admit that complaints relating to domestic violence fall through as a result of incomplete judicial or investigation processes, Sierra Leoneans have got to be worried.
Clearly,some Sierra Leoneans talked to during this investigation said that the police should not be entirely blamed for this state of affairs. Part of the reason for the unsuccessful prosecutions of SGBV cases is that the complainants (the victim) do not cooperate with the court until the end of the process. The police say the women stop cooperating as soon as they realize that their spouses have filed a counter-complaint to local Chiefs. Police say the women are more likely to obey instructions from local chiefs than the police. Part of the reason is the tremendous respect and fear that local chiefs command from the people. Most residents in challenged communities hail from the provinces, where chiefs are extremely powerful.
Police say it’s almost impossible to arrest local chiefs who undermine judicial processes as the police will “have to follow a lot of procedures, including going through the Ministry of Internal Affairs”.
Based on the details of the Act, among other things, criminalizes out-of-court settlements as well as any actions that expressly or otherwise undermine efforts at promoting justice for SGBV crimes. For now, it appears as though most victims of domestic violence in the Mabayla community feel a lot more compelled to respect the decisions of local chiefs - even where the chiefs are acting out of their jurisdiction, rather than cooperating with judicial processes aimed at delivering justice. This is probably due to the lengthy period of trials, which has somewhat undermined public confidence in the judicial system.
Furthermore,a new report from The Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) in 2015 shows that Sierra Leone allocates just 4 million Leones ($800) annually to fund the nation’s fight against SGBV and sex crimes under the Sierra Leone Police Force’s Family Support Unit (FSU). The 62 FSUs across the country investigate and prosecute Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) related offenses.
The Sierra Leone Family Support Unit(FSUs) was set up in 2001,a specialized unit created solely within the Sierra Leone Police to provide a response to the outbreak of violence against women and children during and in the aftermath of the civil war. CARL’s report found that the lack of funding for the FSUs greatly reduces the police officers’ ability to investigate cases. They often times have to request from the victims themselves to pay for calls or to cover transportation costs to aid their investigation. The FSU has a shortage of staff, office space, vehicles, bikes, etc.
Regrettably, the SGBV situation across the country got worse within the Ebola crisis. The Northern Province which is the most ill equipped of all the provinces had a total of 49 reported rape cases in the first 2 months of 2015. The highest number of cases ever recorded relating to SGBV. Elsewhere, Sexual and gender-based violence and rape have continued to increase.
According to a police investigation, there were 2201 cases of sexual assault in 2014 an almost 50% increase in cases from the year before when it was 1485 cases. CARL reports that the Sierra Leone Police needs $30,000 a month to adequately fund its Family Support Units. Every police station in the country is expected to have an FSU and every FSU should be adequately staffed with male and female social workers from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) as well as police officers.
In the face of all these challenges, a significant change as a result of the rebel war is the increased and sustained activism of women advocating for peace,democracy, and good governance. During and after the civil war, women’s groups, local organizations, and human right bodies including donors have responded greatly to the disruption of social services and community-based structures by developing networks and alternative coping strategies to solve SGBV related problems such as food scarcity, sexual violence, and shortcomings in health and education provision. Recently, a number of organization’s have also begun working with men and boys to become more active participants in efforts to end the culture of tolerance and impunity surrounding SGBV in the North of Sierra Leone, a region with the highest prevalence of SGBV. Strategies have included training programmes that incorporate sensitization and awareness-raising about the importance of prosecuting perpetrators of SGBV that target both officials in the legal sector, as well as authorities within the communities affected,would help to ameliorate this problem, and also strategies that integrate consultations with community leaders, traditional heads, and local organizations across the country to identify how to address the issue would be useful. However, these organizations have very limited resources and capacity for sustaining the implementation of these projects in the long-term, making government- and donorsupport critical to their ongoing activities.