What is behind the huge increase in the incidence of sexual violence and rapes in Sierra Leone? The government has announced draconian measures against perpetrators but will these address the root causes? Julian Lahai Samboma set out to find out.
When Sierra Leone’s government recently passed legislation making the crime of sexual penetration of minors punishable by life imprisonment, the move was universally hailed as a signal that the government was serious about getting to grips with the spiralling rise of rapes and gender-based violence in the country.
The new legislation was speedily enacted on the back of President Julius Maada Bio’s declaration that the crisis was a national emergency. This was after figures showing that the number of rapes and sexual assaults against women and young girls last year had risen to over 8,500, from just 632 reported cases in 2012.
However, it was only in 2012 that the police began officially recording incidents of sexual violence, so in that year there was serious under-reporting of cases. The situation improved in subsequent years, as witnessed by the over 8,500 cases reported last year.
“Our commitment [to solving this problem] is beyond mere words and beyond mere acknowledgement of an obligation,” the President said. “The protection and empowerment of our women and girls is critical to our existence and progress as a nation.”
Whatever the statistical anomalies, there is no doubt that the egregious incidence of rapes and gender-based violence against women and underage girls – who account for over 70% of sexual assault victims – is a major social and perhaps cultural disaster. The question is why is this happening in a relatively small country like Sierra Leone?
What is the truth behind the assertion that spiralling gender-based violence in Sierra Leone can be attributed largely to the country’s bloody civil war in the decade of the 1990s?
In this context, it is interesting to look at the work of Dr Luisa Schneider, a German anthropologist who had worked on the issue in Sierra Leone, and written several papers on it. She holds that the problem can be traced right back to the country’s history of slavery and colonialism.
Speaking to New African, Dr Schneider said: “Anthropologists often work with the concept of a continuum of violence to show that individual acts of violence against women do not happen in isolation from larger social, political and economic structures of violence.
“In Sierra Leone,” she contends, “the civil war tends to be overemphasised as the trigger for the high levels of violence. However, gender-based violence is shaped by larger structural violence which Sierra Leoneans endured for prolonged periods of time through colonialism, slavery, economic exploitation, health emergencies and conflict. This resulted in harmful gender norms and gender inequality.”
Those structures of violence by people in power against marginalised groups, she says, “were then reproduced and reinforced throughout history. It is a process with its own dynamic; it is not reducible to [a] simple explanation. It’s not the case that this huge problem developed just today. This is a continuum both historically and in scale.”
She holds that while European slavery and colonialism marginalised women and exacerbated gender inequality, the increasing use of violence in the resultant economic exploitation saw violence as a ‘medium of expression’ trickling down from the powerful to the powerless. Thus men, who suffered brutality at the hands of the invaders, dished it out in turn to their womenfolk, their children, and to weaker or less powerful men.
When we couple this historical dimension with cultural norms in Sierra Leone, which allow much older men to marry much younger women, the result is a slippery slope into a society in which respect for women and young girls is low to non-existent.
Instead of pumping resources into new initiatives and organisations, campaigners say that the government should embrace civil society groups like Advocaid and the Rainbo Initiative, which are already on the ground doing good work, but are severely under-resourced.
Compounding the egregious sexual assaults on women and young girls in the country is the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (or FGM), which campaigners like Alimatu Dimonekeneh consider a form of sexual abuse because, as she says, “It intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
Sierra Leone is one of the countries with the highest rates of FGM, with between 80-90% of girls being cut. The practice can lead to medical and other complications in later life.
Dimonekeneh, who is the founder of A Girl At A Time, an advocacy group for women’s and girls’ rights in Sierra Leone, welcomes the new law on the statutory rape but says the government “cannot address rape and ignore FGM”.
This is a reference to the fact that although there is a ‘technical ban’ on the practice dating back to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, FGM continues unabated. Sierra Leone is one of the few countries without a law against FGM.
She said: “We need urgent intervention from the government of Sierra Leone to safeguard and protect women and girls from the complications and impact of FGM on the next generation of girls.”
While the welcome legislation of life imprisonment for statutory rape would not fail to concentrate the minds of potential rapists and paedophiles, it raises questions about just how the new law will work in practice.
In the first instance, will Sierra Leone’s prisons system have the capacity to cope? It is obvious that if the law works as intended, and all other things remaining the same, there will be a massive influx of inmates convicted, or awaiting trial, for sexual offences. It is an open secret that the country’s prison system, starting with Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison, is severely overpopulated.
So, if this initiative is going to arrest, and in time reverse, the horrific incidence of rapes and gender-based violence against women and underage girls, then the government should also be implementing measures to free up the available prison space, and also building more prisons.
Another question is, will those convicted under the new law will spend the rest of their lives behind bars? If, it is the case that they will be let out after serving a portion of their sentences, will there be programmes of rehabilitation or re-education in prison? And how will they be monitored post-release, to keep reoffending rates down?
Given what many have described as a positive start to his new government, President Bio would be advised to match his words about his commitment to gender equality and women’s and girls’ rights with the resources needed to get the job done. NA