Rape Culture and The Rise of Gender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone
The river banks are filled with tears. The hills and the valleys re-echo the cry of our ancestors, and the mountains weep in reply to the despicable and heinous acts of and gender-based violence women are facing in Sierra Leone today. Is it glorious for one to be a man, and hell-bound for our mothers, sisters, and other people in our communities to be female? I ask this and many other questions every time I think of the way cases of rape, oppression of women, and other forms of gender-based violence keep increasing in my beloved Sierra Leone and our world today. According to data from the World Bank and UN Women, an estimated 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (UN Women, 2016). These statistics exclude sexual harassment. This alarming statistical increase is a cause for concern because one in every three women has experienced violence in a variety of forms. We interact with these women every day, but the amazing thing is that some of them are so brave that you will never know the size of their trauma unless you take a walk in their shoes. Sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone today has covered the country with a dark cloud that does not only include children who are being raped, but women as old as seventy-five years are also victims.
Rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are not a skeleton in the cupboard anymore in Sierra Leone. Thousands of cases went unreported during the civil war from 1991 to 2002, as SGBV was widespread during that period (BBC, 2019). According to a State House document, seventy percent of rape survivors (victims) are below the age of 15, and some fatalities are as young as three months old (NPR, 2019).
An official report from the Sierra Leone Police raised eyebrows on the alarming increase of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. Over 8,500 SGBV cases were recorded in 2018, and one-third of those involved child victims (Euronews, 2019). The police started collecting official statistics in 2012, and 632 cases were reported that year. Six years later, the number of cases reported was thirteen times more than what was recorded in 2012 (The Conversation, 2019).
Causes of Rape
Rape is a barbaric act that should not be justified by putting any defensive cloak over it; neither should it be ignored by policymakers or any peace-loving and development-oriented Sierra Leonean. The factors responsible for the increasing number of rape cases including but not limited to insatiability of perpetrators, ignorance, and disregard for the dignity of women, weak laws prohibiting sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), patriarchy/male chauvinism, and delayed/denied justice against perpetrators of rape and SGBV.
Consequences of Rape
Rape as a form of sexual and gender-based violence has a far-reaching psychological impact on victims of any age. When stringent measures are not put in place, perpetrators will engage in rampant violation of the rights of women and girls, as it is the case in Sierra Leone. Perpetrators think with their genitals instead of their brain, and the urge creates no room for using contraceptives like condoms. Thus leading to sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. Depression and trauma become onerous on victims, especially when stigmatization arises from society, which is supposed to provide them with a support system to enable them reintegration into the socialization space. According to a UNDP report, rape has contributed to the increasing rate of School dropouts in Sierra Leone (IWPR, 2016).
What has been done?
The gender justice laws of Sierra Leone were enacted in 2007 and 2009, respectively, followed by the ratification of the Sexual Offences Act in 2012. With these three policies in place, the number of reported cases has increased over the years. However, these increasing numbers show how endemic sexual and gender-based violence has become in Sierra Leone.
In as much as we have weak enforcement mechanisms for some laws and policies in the country, quite a good number of Sierra Leoneans will argue that the government is making strides to minimize rape in the country drastically. Many accolades have been given to the First Lady of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Her Excellency Mrs. Fatima Maada Bio, for launching the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign in 2018 criminalizing rape and sexual harassment of women and girls. The government also amended the 2012 Sexual Offenses Act (Euronews, 2019). In the new law, if you rape a child, you face life imprisonment. You rape an adult; the jail term ranges from 15 years upwards. In the previous Act, the maximum jail term was 15 years (Euronews, 2019). Are these enough? How good is a policy or a campaign if its proper implementation is clouded by the deeds of community members who are supposed to work towards the development of that community?
In February this year, a 55-year-old woman by the name of Ms. Y. Gberie was gang-raped in Bonthe District (the hometown of the president) by 15 men who are supposedly members of the Poro Society – an all-male powerful secret society in Sierra Leone (Africa Deeds, 2020). Vicky Remoe – a famous journalist in the West African coastal nation, posted the apprehension of seven out of the fifteen perpetrators on her twitter account (Africa Deeds, 2020). This horrific incident has imprinted a traumatic scar in the heart of the victim. The case is currently under investigation.
The way forward
It is very evident now more than ever that the issue of women empowerment is everyone’s business. Women need to be empowered to compliment the progressive development trend. To address this challenging issue, I firmly believe that the recommendations below should be taken into consideration.
The Government of Sierra Leone, through the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, should develop/strengthen (if it’s already existing) a gender monitoring team/arm that will facilitate the promotion of gender equality in schools. This team should also act as the police wing of the ministry in prosecuting all GBV cases recorded in education institutions, especially the issue of rape, sexual assault, Sexually Transmitted Grades (STGs), which are becoming alarming issues in our education institutions.
The Ministry of Education should incorporate character-based leadership and human rights, responsibilities, and obligations into the education sector across all levels. If we teach our countrymen from an early stage the value of collaborative work by instilling ethics and good character in them, we will have a Sierra Leone that promotes peaceful cohabitation of both genders in every sphere of professional, academic, social engagement.
The Ministry of Education should conduct comparative studies of some countries abroad that are doing very well in terms of promoting gender equality through education. For example, Rwanda could be an ideal candidate for a country that we might learn from.
Aside from my recommendations above, I firmly believe that the collaboration of different women empowerment initiatives and programs will play a significant role in injecting a positive dose into the minds of Sierra Leoneans. For instance, the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign, which was launched by the First Lady and the Black Tuesday campaign launched by the Asmaa James Foundation, are examples of strides taken by Sierra Leoneans to address the issue of rape in Sierra Leone. Your voice matters in this cause to minimize or end rape. Start by educating the next person closest to you to be respectful to our women folks and treat them with dignity and positive validation. Let’s break the silence and I-don’t-care attitude because whatever affects one woman or girl child affects us all.
BBC (2019). Sierra Leone declares emergency over rape and sexual assault. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47169729
Egbeta E. (2020). Sierra Leone: 7 arrested over the gang rape of 55-year-old woman. Available at: https://africafeeds.com/2020/02/19/sierra-leone-7-arrested-over-the-gang-rape-of-55-year-old-woman/
Euronews (2019). Sierra Leone toughens penalties for sexual violence. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2019/09/19/sierra-leone-toughens-penalties-for-sexual-violence
IPWR (2016). Sierra Leone: Seeking Justice For Rape Survivors. Available at: https://iwpr.net/global-voices/sierra-leone-seeking-justice-rape-survivors
NPR (2019). Sierra Leone’s President Declared Rape A National Emergency. What Happens Now? Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/02/15/694846069/sierra-leones-president-declared-rape-a-national-emergency-what-happens-now
The Conversation (2019). Sierra Leone takes welcome leap on rape: but next steps are crucial. Available at: http://theconversation.com/sierra-leone-takes-welcome-leap-on-rape-but-next-steps-are-crucial-112010
UN Women (2016). Global Database on Violence against Women. Available at: https://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/en