The War Continues for Women of Sierra Leone

RHRefugee

Although the civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, women in the country are still facing another deadly front—sexual and gender-based violence.  Sexual and gender based violence has continued unflinchingly into the post-war years. Glasgow, head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said, “We saw rape and sexual violence used as a tool during the war, and now it is morphing into this culture’s society as something that is understood and even accepted.”

Although the civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, women in the country are still facing another deadly front—sexual and gender-based violence.  Sexual and gender based violence has continued unflinchingly into the post-war years. Glasgow, head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said, “We saw rape and sexual violence used as a tool during the war, and now it is morphing into this culture’s society as something that is understood and even accepted.”[1]

 

The influence of the civil war is apparent. Many of the perpetrators were exposed to rape and sexual violence as children during the war, since most cases come from areas with a large population of ex-combatants.[2]

 

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The statistics are horrifying. Samuel Harbor, UNDP Deputy Country Director said, “By the end of her life span, nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer from some form of sexual or gender-based violence.”[3] According to the latest statistics for Sierra Leone, 927 reports of sexual abuse were reported in 2009. Many of these incidents happen at a young age; 65% of clients seen at 4 International Rescue Committee (IRC) clinics were under 15 years old.[4]

 

However, despite laws against sexual violence and domestic abuse made in 2007, offenders remain unpunished and impunity prevails. In fact, out of the 927 sexual abuse cases reported in the country in 2009, there were no convictions. 460 cases are under investigation, 40 cases are pending, while 122 cases were resolved or withdrawn. Two cases were dismissed.[5]

 

There are numerous barriers to the punishment of sexual abusers including administrative and judicial capacity problems, financial issues, and stigmatization. The police Family Support Unit (FSU), the leading investigators of violence against women and children, are having a difficult time in fulfilling their mandate. Isha Bangura, the director of the FSU, explained, “My unit is seriously under-resourced to cope with all the gender-based violence…The basic structures, including equipment to collect accurate data, are insufficient.” It is nearly impossible to get the needed medical data with only one doctor for 18,000 people in the country.[6] Furthermore, because of the abject poverty facing these women, many accept money from their perpetrators instead seeking judicial retribution.

 

 

“There is no stigma attached to being a rapist in

Sierra Leonean society, only to being raped.”

 

 

However, the stigma against rape is by far the greatest obstacle to the punishment of rapists. Fear of stigmatization is especially obvious, especially among younger victims. Young girls will refuse to go back to school and refuse to engage with others because they think children and community members will tease and judge them.[7] Eunice Whenzle, head of a clinic in Freetown said, “There is no stigma attached to being a rapist in Sierra Leonean society, only to being raped.”[8] 

 

The Astarte Project has been working with local organizations in Sierra Leone to build the capacity of organizations to provide reproductive health care and services for survivors of GBV. Partnering organizations work to fight stigma against sexual and gender-based violence and provide reproductive health care for all women and girls.

Commentary Violence

This is Not The Story I Wanted—But It’s My Story of Rape

Dani Kelley

Writer Dani Kelley thought she had shed the patriarchal and self-denying lessons of her conservative religious childhood. But those teachings blocked her from initially admitting that an encounter with a man she met online was not a "date" that proved her sexual liberation, but an extended sexual assault.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence.

The night I first truly realized something was wrong was supposed to be a good night.

A visiting friend and I were in pajamas, eating breakfast food at 10 p.m., wrapped in blankets while swapping stories of recent struggles and laughs.

There I was, animatedly telling her about my recently acquired (and discarded) “fuck buddy,” when suddenly the story caught in my throat.

When I finally managed to choke out the words, they weren’t what I expected to say. “He—he held me down—until, until I couldn’t—breathe.”

Hearing myself say it out loud was a gut-punch. I was sobbing, gasping for breath, arms wrapped as if to hold myself together, spiraling into a terrifying realization.

This isn’t the story I wanted.

Unlearning My Training

I grew up in the Plymouth Brethren movement, a small fundamentalist Christian denomination that justifies strict gender roles through a literal approach to the Bible. So, according to 1 Corinthians 11:7, men are considered “the image and glory of God,” while women are merely “the glory of man.” As a result, women are expected to wear head coverings during any church service, among other restrictions that can be best summed up by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: Women are never allowed to have authority over men.

If you’ve spent any number of years in conservative Christianity like I did, you’re likely familiar with the fundamentalist tendency to demonize that which is morally neutral or positive (like premarital sex or civil rights) while sugar-coating negative experiences. The sugar-coating can be twofold: Biblical principles are often used to shame or gaslight abuse victims (like those being shunned or controlled or beaten by their husbands) while platitudes are often employed to help members cope with “the sufferings of this present time,” assuring them that these tragedies are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

In many ways, it’s easy to unlearn the demonization of humanity as you gain actual real-world experience refuting such flimsy claims. But the shame? That can be more difficult to shake.

The heart of those teachings isn’t only present in this admittedly small sect of Christianity. Rather, right-wing Western Christianity as a whole has a consent problem. It explicitly teaches its adherents they don’t belong to themselves at all. They belong to God (and if they’re not men, they belong to their fathers or husbands as well). This instilled lack of agency effectively erases bodily autonomy while preventing the development of healthy emotional and physical boundaries.

On top of that, the biblical literalism frequently required by conservative Christianity in the United States promotes a terrifying interpretation of Scripture, such as Jeremiah 17:9. The King James Version gives the verse a stern voice, telling us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” If we believe this, we must accept that we’re untrustworthy witnesses to our own lives. Yet somehow, we’re expected to rely on the authority of those the Bible deems worthy. People like all Christians, older people, and men.

Though I’ve abandoned Christianity and embraced feminist secular humanism, the culture in which I grew up and my short time at conservative Bob Jones University still affect how I view myself and act in social situations. The lessons of my formative years created a perfect storm of terrible indoctrination: gender roles that promoted repressed individuality for women while encouraging toxic masculinity, explicit teaching that led to constant second-guessing my ability to accurately understand my own life, and a biblical impetus to “rejoice in my suffering.”

Decades of training taught me I’m not allowed to set boundaries.

But Some Habits Die Hard

Here’s the thing. At almost 30, I’d never dated anyone other than my ex-husband. So I thought it was about time to change that.

When I found this man’s online profile, I was pleasantly surprised. It was full of the kind of geekery I’m into, even down to the specific affinity for eclectic music. I wrote to him, making sure my message and tone were casual. He responded instantly, full of charisma and charm. Within hours, we’d made plans to meet.

He was just as friendly and attentive in person. After wandering around town, window-shopping, and getting to know one another, he suggested we go to his favorite bar. As he drank (while I sipped water), he kept paying me compliments, slowly breaking the touch barrier. And honestly, I was enthralled—no one had paid attention to me like this in years.

When he suggested moving out to the car where we could be a little more intimate, I agreed. The rush of feeling desired was intoxicating. He seemed so focused on consent—asking permission before doing anything. Plus, he was quite straightforward about what he wanted, which I found exciting.

So…I brought him home.

This new and exciting “arrangement” lasted one week, during which we had very satisfying, attachment-free sex several times and after which we parted ways as friends.

That’s the story I told people. That’s the story I thought I believed. I’d been freed from the rigid expectations and restraints of my youth’s purity culture.

Now. You’re about to hear me say many things I know to be wrong. Many feminists or victim advocates almost certainly know the rationalizations and reactions I’m about to describe are both normal responses to abuse and a result of ingrained lies about sex in our culture. Not to mention evidence of the influence that right-wing conservatism can have on shaping self-actualization.

As I was telling people the story above, I left out important details. Were my omissions deliberate? An instinctive self-preservation mechanism? A carryover from draconian ideals about promiscuity?

When I broke down crying with my friend, I finally realized I’d kept quiet because I couldn’t bear to hear myself say what happened.

I’m a feminist, damn it. I left all the puritanical understandings of gender roles behind when I exited Christianity! I even write about social justice and victim advocacy. I ought to recognize rape culture!

Right?

If only being a socially aware feminist was enough to erase decades of socialization as a woman within rape culture—or provide inoculation against sexual violence.

That first night, once we got to my car, he stopped checking in with me. I dismissed the red flag as soon as I noticed it, telling myself he’d stop if I showed discomfort. Then he smacked my ass—hard. I pulled away, staring at him in shocked revulsion. “Sorry,” he replied, smirking.

He suggested that we go back to my house, saying we’d have more privacy than at his place. I was uneasy, unconvinced. But he began passionately kissing, groping, petting, and pleading. Against my better judgment, I relented.

Yet, in the seclusion of my home, there was no more asking. There was only telling.

Before I knew it, I’d been thrown on my back as he pulled off my clothes. I froze. The only coherent thought I could manage was a weak stammer, asking if he had a condom. He seemed agitated. “Are you on birth control?” That’s not the point! I thought, mechanically answering “yes.”

With a triumphant grin and no further discussion, he forced himself into me. Pleasure fought with growing panic as something within me screamed for things to slow down, to just stop. The sensation was familiar: identical to how I felt when raped as a child.

I frantically pushed him off and rolled away, hyperventilating. I muttered repeatedly, “I need a minute. Just give me a minute. I need a minute.”

“We’re not finished yet!” he snapped angrily. As he reached for me again, I screeched hysterically, “I’M NOT OK! I NEED A MINUTE!”

Suddenly, he was kind and caring. Instead of being alarmed, I was strangely grateful. So once I calmed down, I fucked him. More than once.

It was—I told myself—consensual. After all, he comforted me during a flashback. Didn’t I owe him that much?

Yet, if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d forcefully smack my ass. If I didn’t seem happy enough, he’d insistently tell me to smile as he hit me again, harder. He seemed to relish the strained smile I would force on command.

I kept telling myself I was okay. Happy, even. Look at how liberated I was!

All week, I was either at his beck and call or fighting suicidal urges. Never having liked alcohol before, I started drinking heavily. I did all I could to minimize or ignore the abuse. Even with his last visit—as I fought to breathe while he forcefully held my head down during oral sex, effectively choking me—I initially told myself desperately that surely he wouldn’t do any of this on purpose.

The Stories We Tell and The Stories That Just Are

Reflecting on that week, I’m engulfed in shame. I’m a proud feminist. I know what coercion looks like. I know what rape looks like. I know it’s rarely a scary man wearing a ski mask in a back alley. I’ve heard all the victim-blaming rape apologia you have: that women make up rape when they regret consenting to sex, or going on a date means sex is in the cards, or bringing someone home means you’re game for anything.

Reality is, all of us have been socialized within a patriarchal system that clouds our experiences and ability to classify them. We’re told to tend and befriend the men who threaten us. De-escalation at any cost is the go-to response of almost any woman I’ve ever talked to about unwanted male attention. Whatever will satiate the beast and keep us safe.

On top of that, my conservative background whispered accusations of being a Jezebel, failing to safeguard my purity, and getting exactly what I deserve for forsaking the faith.

It’s all lies, of course. Our culture lies when it says that there are blurred lines when it comes to consent. It violates our personhood when it requires us to change the narrative of the violence enacted against us for their own comfort. Right-wing Christianity lies when it says we don’t belong to ourselves and must submit to the authority of a religion or a gender.

Nobody’s assaulted because they weren’t nice enough or because they “failed” to de-escalate. There’s nothing we can do to provoke such violence. Rape is never deserved. The responsibility for sexual assault lies entirely with those who attack us.

So why was the story I told during and after that ordeal so radically and fundamentally different from what actually happened? And why the hell did I think any of what happened was OK?

Rape myths are so ingrained in our cultural understanding of relationships that it was easier for me to believe nothing bad had happened than to accept the truth. I thought if I could only tell the story I wanted it to be, then maybe that’s what really happened. I thought if I was willing—if I kept having him over, if I did what he ordered, if I told my friends how wonderful it was—it would mean everything was fine. It would mean I wasn’t suffering from post-traumatic stress or anxiety about defying the conservative tenets of my former political and religious system.

Sometimes, we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear until we’re able to bear the stories of what actually happened.

We all have a right to say who has what kind of access to our bodies. A man’s masculinity gives him no authority over anyone’s sexual agency. A lack of a “no” doesn’t mean a “yes.” Coercion isn’t consent. Sexual acts performed without consent are assault. We have a right to tell our stories—our real stories.

So, while this isn’t the story I wanted, it’s the story that is.

I was raped.

News Abortion

Blackburn Abortion Investigation Set for Congressional Windfall

Christine Grimaldi

All told, the investigation is well on its way to totaling $790,000, using nearly 80 percent of the House’s available supplemental funding.

Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives panel investigating questionable reproductive health-care allegations have sought an additional $490,000 in funding—even as Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) publicly indicated that their activities may halt by the end of the year.

Congressional documents reveal that panel Republicans requested the money from the Committee on House Administration, which sets aside $500,000 per session of Congress to supplement operating budgets.

​A congressional aide told ​ Rewire that the request has been approved.​

The panel last year received $300,000, which followed the House’s informal two-thirds/one-third funding split between the majority and minority parties, from the Administration Committee’s coffers. All told, the investigation is well on its way to totaling $790,000, using nearly 80 percent of the House’s available supplemental funding.

House rules stipulate that standing subcommittees draw funding from the budget of the full committee with jurisdiction and pursue additional means as needs arise. The funding streams are murkier in the case of the select panel, a temporary entity under the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It’s unclear how much money, if any, Energy and Commerce Committee chair Fred Upton (R-MI) has directed from his budget to the select panel.

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Upton’s spokespeople did not respond to questions from Rewire about full committee financial support for the ad hoc panel by publication time.

Administration Committee Democrats protested the original funding request and raised similar objections again this time, to no avail. The current action marks the second time the committee “decided without a public hearing or a proper vote to pay for the political attack on Planned Parenthood,” they said in a statement accompanying a trove of appeals to their Republican counterparts on the committee to stop the transfer.

Blackburn’s select panel spokesperson in an email to Rewire deferred all funding questions to the Administration Committee, including what Republicans intend to do with their share and whether their request marks an expansion of the investigation despite the limited number of days that Congress will be in session for the remainder of the year.

In a statement shared via panel spokesperson, Blackburn cited allegations she often makes about abortion clinics and tissue procurement companies trafficking in “baby body parts.” She also repeated a similar claim against the University of New Mexico, the subject of her recent criminal referral to the state’s attorney general.

“These disturbing findings are exactly why this investigation is warranted and we will continue to follow the facts in order to complete our report to Congress by the end of the year,” she said.

Blackburn’s reference to the end of the year signals that there’s an end in sight. The resolution creating the panel only specifies that activities will come to an end 30 days after filing a final report. An Upton spokesperson previously referenced the panel’s “one-year term” when Rewire reported on past fetal tissue attacks in Congress.

In any event, Blackburn must act before the resolution expires with the close of the 114th Congress in 2016. The House would have to vote next year, in the 115th Congress, to extend the current investigation.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the select panel’s ranking member, condemned the latest funding request and the overall investigation.

“This has not been—nor will it ever be—a fact-based investigation,” Schakowsky said in a statement. “Instead the Panel is being run as a taxpayer-funded arm of anti-abortion groups, in pursuit of a partisan, anti-science, and anti-health care agenda. Enough is enough.”