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Valentine’s Day – opportunity to step up campaign on rape in Sierra Leone

Valentine’s Day – opportunity to step up campaign on rape in Sierra Leone

*We should use the celebration of Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to step up our campaign against rape*

Sierra Leone still bears some of the scars of her brutal civil war and chief among these is rape. In response to what is now an epidemic, President Julius Maada Bio declared a state of emergency on the matter but the battle to end the scourge has only just started.  (PhotoZainab Tunkara Clarkson, author)

With Valentine’s Day here again, it brings to the fore the debate about rape and sexual assault in Sierra Leone. Unlike the rest of the world where the day is one in which couples share love and affection, for us, it should be a day to reflect on recent incidents of rape, sexual abuse and violence.

In Cambodia for instance, records show that the incidences of rape rises significantly on Valentine’s Day.  Judging by recent developments in Sierra Leone, we  are likely to face the same risks. Given the recent increase in the scourge across the country, President Julius Maada Bio has already declared a national emergency on rape and sexual assault across Sierra Leone.

Barely a day goes by in Sierra Leone without the local media reporting several disturbing cases of sexual abuse and  violence, often involving minors. So last week’s decision by the President to declare a national emergency only served to further highlight the persistent problem of sexual abuse and violence in the country.

President Bio’s action was sparked by the horrific rape of a five-year-old girl by her 28-year-old uncle, which left her paralysed from the waist downwards. Many of our compatriots reacted with horror and anger to this development and were  relieved by the President’s announcement.

Last year, more than 8,500 rape cases were recorded across Sierra Leone, representing an increase of more than 4,000 from 2017. Attacks on minors alone account for a third of all cases and in many incidents, the perpetrator is known to the victim, or is in a position of trust.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, young girls in Sierra Leone will be under pressure to have sex from a variety of sources including peer pressure, financial inducements from benefactors and in some cases outright rape. Valentine’s Day gifts will be sold out outside girls’ schools to entice young, naive and vulnerable teenage girls.

According to Daniel Kettor, the executive director of the Rainbo Initiative, which works with victims of rape and other sex crimes, many victims unfortunately do not press charges against the perpetrator. He added that this is because in many instances, the perpetrator is often the only person providing for the family.

At the moment, the Rainbo Initiative is currently the only provider of free medical and psychosocial services for gender-based violence in Sierra Leone.  Over the past two decades, Sierra Leone has grappled with the legacy of a brutal civil war, during which rape was commonly used as a weapon but while the country has made strides in the process of reconciliation, the shadow of sexual violence still lingers.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, wartime sexual violence can be linked to peacetime gender-based discrimination and assault. In December 2018, first lady Fatima Maada Bio led a demonstration in the capital Freetown to raise awareness of the issue and she went on to launch a campaign called Hands Off Our Girls, which also aims to stop forced marriages of underage girls and domestic violence in marriages.

Raising awareness is already helping to challenge the long-held taboo in Sierra Leonean society against discussing rape and sexual assault. We should use the celebration of Valentine’s Day to ram the message home further that rape and other sexual and gender based offences are no longer acceptable in Sierra Leone.

Just as we have seen in Cambodia, some men think that Valentine’s Day offers them an opportunity of free sex but we have to make the point that this is unacceptable. Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about love, caring compassion, affection and not fulfilling sexual desires like lustful animals.

By Zainab Tunkara Clarkson

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