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Ebola and Gender Violence

Ebola and Gender Violence

The 11 year long civil war in Sierra Leone (1991 – 2002) witnessed so many juveniles as victims and also perpetrators of serious atrocities. Violence was the other of the day and systemic against women and girls. Long after the war, and to date, women and girls still face abuses – mainly domestic and sexual abuse – although there has been significant improvements. Thanks to the continued advocacy by human right institutions and civil society activism in the country.

In 2007, the Government of Sierra Leone by the recommendations of the Truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) between 2007 and 2012 enacted what has become known as the ‘Gender Acts’. This includes the Sexual Offences Act of 2012, enacted to prevent sexual abuse and punish sexual offenders. The enactment of these laws was a significant development in efforts to enhance gender equity, and the laws have improved the lives of particularly women and girls in Sierra Leone by providing them legal protection.

However, the end of the war, the enactment of gender laws and the setting up of judicial structures in the country have not put an end to sexual related violence and abuse. Sexual and Gender based Violence (SGBV) continues to be a major part of the justice problems faced by women and girls in Sierra Leone, especially in the Western Area.

An NGO, Centre for Accountability Rule of Law (CARL)  has been doing a great job of promoting and advocating for gender rights through its numerous strategies including monitoring of SGBV-related trials, community outreach and training of law enforcement and justice officers in the implementation of the gender laws, and so on, until when a serious threat to the progress of this work presented itself in May 2014 when the government of Sierra Leone announced the first case of the deadly ebola virus disease in the country. The virus has now killed over 3000 people in Sierra Leone including nurses, doctors. Soon the disease became a public health emergency which prompted the government to declare a state of emergency.

Since the outbreak in May this year, the Ebola virus has had a huge impact on women and children. According the Chief Executive of Save the Children UK, an estimated two (2) million children are at risk of contracting the deadly Ebola Virus as most of them had lost either one or both parent or are at the mercy of humanitarians to help them to survive. Apart from the direct impact of the virus on children, there are also indirect consequences in the form of the impact of the outbreak on the justice needs of these vulnerable members of the population. The restrictive measures announced by government after the declaration of the state of emergency have continued to affect the progress of juvenile and gender justice systems, like many other of the judicial system. Even with the outbreak of Ebola, there are increasing reports of sexual abuse, especially in the Western Area. There are fresh cases of sexual violence that are being brought to both Juvenile and Magistrates courts. During my monitoring exercises of sexual cases in court, I recorded over fifty (50) cases of sexual violence just between the month of October and November 2014, not to talk of the preceding months. On the whole, there was an increase in the number of sexual cases in the year 2014, and one can guess that this was not unrelated to the fact that the police have been too engaged in monitoring and enforcing government imposed emergency Ebola response measures such as enforcing quarantines and tracing affected or suspected cases of infection.

 As a court monitor, monitoring sexual and gender based violence (SGVB) cases, I had to put up with a lot of changes and challenges after the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease. Before the Ebola epidemic,   normal court sittings for SGBV cases were held on Saturdays at 10:00 am. This was done in order to expedite the administration of gender justice since the courts will be less crowded on Saturdays with other cases, and mostly to protect the identity of the victims, especially when they are of minority age.

But since the outbreak of Ebola, the sittings were incorporated into the normal court sittings which run from Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. and they are currently being conducted in the chambers of the Magistrate, all in a bid to protect the victims’ identity. For this reason, I don’t get to witness some of these cases, since the chambers can only accommodate six people at a time. So many times, if prosecutors and defence counsel are in the chambers we court monitors are not allowed to go in.

Another challenge faced during the cause of the year was that I was unable to implement some of the programmes under my gender project, as most of them would involve gathering people. For instance, since the public emergency regulations forbid public gatherings on occasions that are not Ebola-related, most of our gender project activities, such as focus group discussion and school outreach programs had to be put on hold almost indefinitely.

In spite of these challenges, there were a few hopeful steps taken by the judiciary to ensure that sexual and gender based violence cases were expedited as much as possible, and a good number of these cases are currently being given speedy trials and a lot have already been committed to the High Court for further trial. Similarly, at the CARL – SL we were able to continue with our advocacy on a lot of gender related issues in the best manner possible. This signals an element of hope in our collective efforts in the fight against SGBV even with the current Ebola crisis.

Finally, as we join hands together in the fight against Ebola, let us be mindful of the fact that our future leaders – the children of Sierra Leone, especially the girl child -need our protection both against Ebola and against sexual related abuse.

By Alie Yunus Kallay, Freetown Sierra Leone – West Africa

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