365 days of violence against Sierra Leone’s women and children: Time for stronger response!
It is that time of year when the world gets together to campaign for “No Violence Against Women and Children.” No Violence Against Women and Children is an international campaign each year of 16 days of activism from 25 November to 10 December. November 25 is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, while December 10 is International Human Rights Day. The dates were chosen in 1991 at the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute in order to symbolically link violence against women and human rights, and to emphasize that such violence is a human rights violation. The period also includes Universal Children’s Day and World AIDS Day.
During this period, all over the world, state and non-state actors are expected to help raise awareness of the negative impact of violence against women and children and to act against abuse. So, twenty years after the campaign was launched, how far has Sierra Leone come in addressing violence against women and children? And, how much longer should it go on before the Government of Sierra Leone, particularly the police and judiciary, more adequately acknowledge that it is a genuine human rights issue that requires a stronger, more effective, and tougher response?
This year’s campaign theme, “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World”, could not be more appropriate to the Sierra Leone context. Hardly a day passes by in Sierra Leone without credible media reports of violence against women and children, both at home and in public. Reports of rape, of girls sometimes below 10 years, forced early marriage, teenage pregnancy, botched abortions, and wife battering are regrettably commonplace. There are far too many complaints that are left without thorough and conclusive investigations. For the few that make it to the courtrooms, the delays are just sometimes unbearable and inexcusable.
In fairness to the Sierra Leone Government, some legislation and institutions have been set up to address the numerous gender and child-related challenges confronting the country. These include the three gender laws, which seek to improve the position of Sierra Leonean women and promote parity between men and women in Sierra Leone, and the Child Rights Act of 2007, which promotes the rights of the child compatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These also include the setting up of Family Support Unit within the Sierra Leone Police (SLP), introduction of a gender component in the Social Welfare Ministry, and a slight increase in the number of women in governance, among others. But, these gains easily pale in comparison to persisting challenges that need to be addressed: the three gender laws are not only inadequate, as it does not fully address the discriminatory clauses in the 1991 Constitution, but effective implementation remains a key challenge; law enforcement officers and local chiefs still enable out-of-court settlements for sexual and gender-based crimes; female genital mutilation of girls continues to happen with impunity; and there are limited number of remand homes (an institution to which juvenile offenders between 8 and 14 years may be remanded or committed for detention) and approved schools (particular kind of residential institution to which young people could be sent by a court, usually for committing offences but sometimes because they were deemed to be beyond parental control) across the country We cannot wish these challenges away. Concrete, genuine and realistic action is required of all, particularly of government institutions.
Over the last year, CARL-SL has been implementing a TROCAIRE-funded Gender project in Makeni, Northern Sierra Leone, where incidents of violence against women and children had reached frightening levels by 2008. Through our efforts and those of several other organizations, community awareness about the negative impact of violence on women is improving. Regrettably, though, preliminary observations from a recent TROCAIRE funded-survey show that domestic violence is still common across the Northern Province. I venture to suggest that it is likely the same for almost every part of the country. While individuals have a responsibility to eschew violence, no one needs reminding law enforcement officials that it is their role to ensure that perpetrators of violence are brought to justice at all times. By contrast, impunity provides a congenial environment for perpetrators. Impunity fuels illegality, and undermines public confidence in a country’s law enforcement system. The country’s recent brutal past shows the importance of ensuring justice for victims of crimes. When the Special Court’s Trial Chamber entered convictions for gender-based crimes committed in Sierra Leone, it was not only meant to underline the seriousness of these offences, it was a poignant reminder to the Sierra Leone Government to be more committed to combating sexual and gender-based crimes. We have failed to do so for so long. But, we have an opportunity to make amends. Let us work together to promote and protect the rights of women and children inSierra Leone.
As we observe the 16 Days of Activism, the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) urges the Sierra Leone Government to fully implement its commitments to national and international legal instruments, particularly the three Gender Acts [decide if this term should be capitalized or not and make consistent throughout] and the Child Rights Act. In particular, we urge the Sierra Leone Police and the judiciary to scale up efforts at bringing to justice persons responsible for rape and other gender-related crimes. Out-of-court settlements are not only wrong, as they XX, they are also criminal. Law enforcement officers who preside over such negotiations, regardless of their motivation, should take a hard look at them during the 16 days of activism. This period presents an opportunity to make a departure from the past. It is time for action – one that protects and promotes the rights of women. It is not a huge ask of anyone. It is simply a call to duty.
By Ibrahim Tommy, CARL-SL
Ibrahim Tommy is the Executive Director of Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law – Sierra Leone
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