Heightened prevalence of rape and other sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone

In recent months, several high profile cases have hit the headlines in the country. The first which resulted in the death of five-year-old Khadija Madinatu Saccoh sparked momentous outrage across the country. It triggered a protest in Freetown and on social media. Although the facts are still contended, it was alleged that she was sexually penetrated and this gruesome act ultimately caused her demise. Bloggers, journalists, writers, advocates, lawyers and many other personalities stood their ground and vouched to seek justice for Khadija.

However, within days, the government consultant pathologist Dr Simeon Owizz Koroma concluded in his autopsy report that the cause of death was not as reported. It was death by strangulation or suffocation. As a result of this finding, two accused persons, Mariama Sajoh Barrie and Ibrahim Bah, were charged with two counts – conspiracy to commit murder and manslaughter. Many, including the deceased girl’s father, continue to question the conclusion of the autopsy. Some suggest that the intention was to sexually penetrate a child, but if that intent results in the death of the victim, then it is murder. To use a weapon, whether blunt or sharp, to hit someone with the intention of causing grievous bodily harm, but if that resulted in death, then it is murder.

There was also the case of Yatta Gberie, a 55-year-old woman and a mother of three. In an article written by Vickie Remoe, she stated that Yatta Gberie “was abducted by a group of men belonging to the powerful all-male Poro Society whose members include presidents, parliamentarians, and paramount chiefs. Ms. Yatta Gberie was raped by 15-20 men in Motuo Village, Kpanda Kemo Chiefdom in Bonthe District, Sherbro Island, Southern Province of Sierra Leone. Poro Society men attacked her house where she lives with her sister Paramount Chief Melrose Foster Gberie.” It is alleged that the attack was intended to be directed at her sister, PC Melrose Foster Gberie who blatantly refused to permit the initiation of boys into the society below the age of 18. To date, no one has been charged for this alleged offence.

Then there was the case of minor (name withheld) who was alleged to have been sexually penetrated by the leader and Chairman of the opposition Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), Mohamed ‘Kamarainba’ Mansaray. The latter was charged on an eight-count indictment for offences including conspiracy contrary to section 43 (b) of the Sexual Offences Act (Act no.12 of 2012), sexual penetration contrary to section 19 of the Sexual Offences Act of 2012, as repealed and replaced by section 4 (a) (iii) of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2019 (Act no.8 of 2019), among others.

These three cases profile cases have once again highlighted the prevalence of rape and other sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone. A VOA article quotes the United Nations as saying that “nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer some form of sexual or gender-based violence in their lifetime.  Many cases go unreported and reported cases seldom lead to convictions.  Of more than 7,500 reports in the past ten years, 40 ended with a conviction.” Cases affecting sexual assault and penetration of children as young as between five months and fifteen years old have inconsiderably increased in number. Between January and April 2019, the Rainbo Centre recorded 1,051 rape cases – the highest ever in the space of four months and closely doubled the 600 reported cases over the same span in 2018.

Again, the Rainbo Initiative recorded from January to May 2020, 1272 cases of rape and other sexual offences against women and girls in the country. A recent Awoko newspaper SMS stated that Rainbo Initiative claims to have treated about 1,000 cases in the last six months as 25 of the 56 cases in the November criminal court are of sexual penetration. Despite these numerous cases of sexual violence incidents recorded, the majority of perpetrators are still wandering the streets as free men. 

To address this scourge, the President declared rape and sexual violence as a national emergency in February 2019. He directed that all Government Hospitals must provide free Medical Treatment and certificate to every victim of rape and sexual abuse; that a Special Division for Rape and Sexual Penetration of Minors be created by the Sierra Leone Police to speedily handle all cases of Rape and Sexual Penetration of Minors. This new Special Division will be separate from the Family Support Unit; that the Honourable Chief Justice consider creating a Special Division with assigned judges to deal with cases of Rape and Sexual Violence; that with immediate effect, sexual penetration of Minors is punishable by life imprisonment; that Law Officers Department should consider to charging all persons accused of Rape and Sexual Violence with an offence of “Aggravated Assault” and that a dedicated National Emergency telephone number for reporting Rape and Sexual Violence will be made available to the public.

Many of these measures have been implemented. The Sexual Offences Act 2012 has been amended. The new law increased the maximum penalty for rape and sexual penetration of a child from 15 years imprisonment to a sentence of life imprisonment and introduced a new provision which makes aggravated sexual assault an offence. Section 7(b) of the amended Act empowers the Chief Justice to issue compulsory sentencing guidelines within three months of coming into force of the new law. It further provides that despite section 7 of the Children and Young Persons Act (cap44 of the laws of Sierra Leone 1960), a child and young person shall be tried in the High Court. The Act further provided and increased punishments for several offences touching and concerning sexual and gender-based violence.

By Constitutional Instrument No.4 of 2019, an instrument drafted by the Rules of Court Committee created a new and special division of the High Court: Sexual Offences Division to try all cases of sexual offences at the level of a High Court. All cases which have gone through preliminary investigations at the Magistrate Court, by invoking section 136 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone are brought to the Sexual Offences Model Court as it has the original jurisdiction to hear and preside over matters of this nature. Following the setting up of the court, thirty-nine accused persons were convicted within twenty-one working days and sentenced to 16 years and a minimal of 12 years imprisonment for sexual penetration of a minor contrary to Section 19 of the Sexual Offences Act, 2012, as amended by Act No. 8 of 2019.

The President also decided to create a stand-alone ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs with, according to him “… focused political leadership and a full complement of professional staff who would advise the presidency and national government on gender, draw up appropriate legislation, coordinate partnerships, and collaborate across ministries …”

In April 2020, the stand-alone Ministry introduced a 24-hour free rape hotline which received more than 300 calls a day, on complaints ranging from varying offences such as rape, sexual penetration of a minor, physical abuse etc. The Ministry also informed the public that it would launch the pilot phase of One-Stop Centres in six districts to adequately deal with the slew of sexual offences cases across the country. A One-Stop Centre model, an interprofessional, health-system based centre that provides survivor-centred health services alongside some combination of social, legal, police and/or shelter services to survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) and/or sexual violence (SV), has also been introduced. The primary objective of the centres is to ensure that survivors no longer have to approach the police stations to report cases of SGBV. Most times, women, out of fear and shame, will reduce the quality of their complaint statement and deliberately refuse to unravel what truly transpired.  The centres will, however, address this problem and allow women to handle women’s issues. This would improve on the quality of complaint statement and set the stage for thorough investigations. 

These centres are fashioned to be housed in government referral hospitals in Moyamba, Kailahun, Pujehun, Kabala, Port Loko, and the Kingharman Road Government referral hospital. The centres will meaningfully serve as an auxiliary to the many projects launched in the fight as sexual violence across Sierra Leone. The initiative is maintained to facilitate access to services like medical assistance to aid affected women and refer them to the nearest hospital for medical examination; legal aid and counselling to enable access to justice, simplification of court procedures, attempts to complete within time-bound manner are made in earnest, and temporary shelter is provided to aggrieved women at the OSC. In case of a requirement of long-term shelter, arrangements are to be made for its provision and A facility provided to aggrieved women to do video conferencing and record their statements for easy admittance of same as evidence in court procedures.

To complement the work of the Government, the First lady launched her flagship “Hands Off our Girls” project aimed at addressing issues affecting girls namely: teenage pregnancy, child trafficking and prostitution, child marriage and sexual-based violence. Generally, the campaign is aimed at bolstering up “women empowerment” in every area. The campaign has several specific issues it seeks to address: early marriage; sustainable and inclusive advocacy for cancer and fistula; sexual-based violence, with emphasis on rape and sexual penetration of a minor; child trafficking and prostitution; preventing mother-child transmission of HIV and AIDs.

A significant success of the campaign has been its outreach to parts of the country where the practice of sexual and gender-based violence was dominant, but where there was little or no awareness of the scourge. She has been to almost all every corners of the nation, spreading the word and raising awareness to the provinces and learning institutions.

She has been active out of the country as well. On 25th September 2019, she hosted a “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign event on the margins of the 74th United Nations General Assembly, aimed at raising global awareness on the need to reduce early marriage and rape in Africa. Various speakers from across the world supported Mrs. Bio’s message, vowed to support and complement the effort by demonstrating similar campaigns in their respective regions. The campaign has opened doors and served as a gateway to various changes and approaches in dealing with the issues surrounding sexual violence in the country. It has also encouraged civil society and advocacy groups in the fight against this menace.

Whilst these steps are commendable, the fight against the scourge is far from over. Many families are dissuaded from taking legal actions because of social stigma, lack of faith in the administration of justice, their incapability to afford the services of a lawyer and to afford transportation to and from the court.

More so, the parochial and insular mindset of many in our society is to blame the victims of rape and other sexual related abuse. The familiar but unfortunate misogynistic statements made by men, and in some cases women, that “the women are to blame, they provoke the men to rape them” or “their dress was too short, so they asked for it.” This is a sad reflection on us. 

Selective advocacy is another menace undermining the fight against sexual violence. I stand in awe of the work and character of the many voices advocating against the same. It is now evident that they separate and elect which case of sexual assault to tackle and condemn. Nothing was heard from any media house or advocacy groups when seven men in Kailahun brutally gang-raped 39-year-old Sata, nor did we hear anything from the many cases of sexual abuse in Kambia, Port Loko and Moyamba. Until all instances of sexual and gender-based violence are addressed, we will continue to shed tears.

The perception of the ordinary man in the Calabar town kekeh is most times not in conformity with the police and prosecutors filing charges. The public automatically desires that cases be immediately charged to court irrespective of what the surrounding circumstances may hold to prove or disprove about such allegations. When a crime is reported, the police and state prosecutors have considerable discretion in how they respond. They need to consider the strength of the physical evidence in making decisions whether or not to charge a matter. In the absence of strong evidence, it is difficult to charge cases to court. The failure to charge cases to court in some instance leads to accusations of selective justice. For instance, there are matters of concern that the police will at all cost struggle to pursue on legal grounds, and others granted exclusive protection from prosecution. It is not always clear why and for what reason(s) institutions with prosecutorial mandate ‘pick and choose’ which matter to forward before a court for redress. The popular opinion on this is that there are sacred cows within the structures of society that are immune to public prosecution. The notion is not antithetical to the fundamental legal principle of equality before and under the law. The law should be supreme. The practice is widely practised in Sierra Leone. Those who come before the court to answer to cases of violence and negligent misconduct irrespective of their status and esteem in society are mostly those out of political favour or are poor, vulnerable and marginalized in society.

Our people stand against such cases, and firmly believe that law should act strictly to prevent such events from happening. Acts like these violate fundamental human rights. These cases are allowed to happen not only because of the flaws of the law and how it is interpreted when it comes to condemning sexual violence but also because of a general lack of gender awareness, education and adequate policies ensuring that sexist behaviours and structures are not perpetuated. It is of the utmost necessity that all decision-makers are aware of the urgency of such matter and undertake the necessary measures to fight it, such as, but not only include gender equality education in schools; educate public servants on gender balance; target specific campaigns to tackle gender mainstreaming; consult civil society organizations working with victims of violence against women and emphasize the specificity of violence against women and the need to address it. We must prove and guard our vigilance, be consistent, and adopt a no-nonsense approach in fighting violence against women in Sierra Leone, for there is the potential of risk and danger that the menace still sits in our homes and communities. Despite the strides made and the concrete laws passed, if we keep undermining their application and interpretation, it will mean that we are not serious in this fight. This is not a one-person battle but a battle for all us, and one that we must win in a bid to sanitize our society, the free land of Sierra Leone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.