A new dawn for the fight against SGBV in Sierra Leone?

By Bintu Mansaray

Sustained advocacy and campaigns against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in Sierra Leone led President Bio to declare a State of Emergency on the issue in February 2019. Amendments to the 2012 Sexual Offences Act followed, which included life imprisonment as a maximum sentence and ensured there were minimum sentencing guidelines. Individuals convicted of an offence would no longer be able to get away with spending just four days in prison, as was the sentence one judge handed out in Freetown in 2019. 2019 also saw the launch of the First Lady’s “Hands Off Our Girls Campaign” and the Black Tuesday Movement by Asmaa James, a journalist and prominent women’s activist. They aim to increase awareness of sexual violence.

Despite increased campaigns, reports of sexual offences, especially against children, are on the rise. The Rainbo Initiative, a non-governmental organisation offering free treatment and psychosocial counselling for survivors of SGBV, treated 3,701 survivors in 2019, with the youngest victim just ten months old. In the first quarter of 2020, they have already recorded 1,272 cases. But what explains this increase in cases, despite the increased scrutiny?

Some argue that due to increased awareness, more people are reporting, and the current numbers are merely reflective of what was, until now, a hidden reality. Greater awareness is breaking down the ‘code of silence’. Poverty is also a factor. While doing training for police offices, including family support units (FSUs), community leaders, community health workers, and primary health unit staff, I was repeatedly reminded of this. Many are cases of sexual exploitation. Sex is seen as a transaction. We need targeted and tailored campaigns to address this.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to fighting rape in Sierra Leone. Awareness groups and organisations working with SGBV need to work with the Rainbo Centres and the local FSUs to understand better the communities they are working in. This knowledge can help direct interventions that meet the specific needs of a community. For example, if abuse or rapes happen when children are sent to fetch water from a stream, a more holistic approach would involve creating boreholes in the centre of the town with solar lights above these taps. Will it stop all rapes? Maybe not. But it will prevent some from happening.

Schools are another area that can be better targeted to prevent SGBV. Sexual abuse occurs in school bathrooms and the back of school buildings. Schools should be a place where our kids are safe. It shouldn’t be a place where they are defiled either by teachers or by other students. I recently had to write safeguarding policies for different projects and decided to ask a few schools and government institutions about their safeguarding policies. I did not find any. The majority of our universities, hospitals, and police stations do not have safeguarding policies. So awareness-raising targeting schools should align with the designing of safeguarding procedures and the training of staff on these policies. The Ministry of Basic and Senior School Education’s recently created safety initiatives for schools is most welcome in this regard.

Sierra Leone can also do more for survivors of SGBV by supporting their access to justice through the establishment of a forensics lab. This can help unequivocally link the perpetrator to the survivor; to the scene of the crime; to equipment such as ropes used during the crime; or to drugs used in intoxication. The availability of this lab will indeed be a game-changer and make it easier for lawyers to prosecute and judges to hand down sentences. But as we wait for the lab, there is still a lot more work we can do in preparation. Increased community advocacy to get survivors to report crimes as soon as they occur and more funding for the FSU to investigate crimes will also help generate greater accountability and justice.

The President launched Sierra Leone’s first Sexual Offences Model Court in Freetown on July 24th, 2020. This court will hear SGBV cases for six days in the week and, if successful, will be rolled out to other parts of the country. It should ensure, if nothing else, speedy trials for victims of SGBV. Delays in court proceedings have been one of the main deterrents to survivors seeking justice. The Ministry of Gender launched six, ‘One Stop Centres’ across the country, to provide multisectoral response services supporting survivors. It is a promising development, but these centres must be well stocked and able to provide the critical care needed. Resolving persistent problems with supply chains in the health sector will be fundamental to their success.

With the health and justice sectors showing signs they are shaping up to fight SGBV, the focus should now move to communities. To end, SGBV requires an inclusive approach. Communities like the police and the military must be included when seeking solutions to end SGBV. Fagan (2012), in his article ‘Police domestic violence nearly twice national average,’ stated that statistics from the US show that domestic violence in homes of first responders like the police can account for between 24% to 40% of national domestic violence cases. Ensuring the voices of women and children in these are heard, both in their communities and more widely, is key to achieving zero SGBV cases.

But in all of this, survivor safety must remain paramount. Survivors need to be protected. Multiple studies indicate that survivors of sexual violence are more likely to be sexually abused again (Sorenson, Siegel, Golding & Stein, 1991; Wittebrood & Nieuwbeerta, 2000; Menard, 2000; Classen, 2005; Woller, 2005; NCJRS, 2006). Consistent with previous research, a recent study of violence against women in the United States found that women who were raped before the age of 18 years were more likely to be raped as adults, compared with those who were not raped as children or adolescents (Tapin, 2014). It is another reason why confidentiality and keeping the survivor’s identity secret is sacrosanct in SGBV work. It is not only about stigma and community acceptance, which must also be addressed cautiously, but being a ‘victim’ of sexual abuse puts one at risk of being targeted again.

Call to Action

I end by reiterating that the energy and zeal we have shown to increase awareness on SGBV and improve legal and medical access should now be concentrated in our communities. Let us call for reform of customary laws that are harmful to our women and children, set up local taskforces responsible for addressing and responding to SGBV reports, and collaborate sincerely to end this menace. It takes a village to raise a child, let us be that village.

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