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.”
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.
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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.” 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.
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there were no convictions. 460 cases are under investigation, 40 cases are pending, while 122 cases were resolved or withdrawn.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.
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. 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. 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.”
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.