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Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Sierra Leone

Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone recorded historic progress in the fight against Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). However, the number of reported cases remains high.

According to the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) 2019 annual report, out of 12,314 criminal cases, 3,252 were sexual penetration of minors, representing 26.4% of the total criminal activity reported in 2019. That means that one out of each four criminal cases in Sierra Leone in 2019 was sexual penetration of a minor. Western Urban and Rural areas accounted for 39.94% of all cases of sexual penetration in 2019.

Women and girls represent over 99% of SGBV victims, according to Charles Vandi, Director of Gender at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs.

There are two existing cultures that continue to negatively impact the fight against the SGBV, Mr Vandi said. These are the rape culture and early marriage mentality, which appear too normal for too many Sierra Leoneans, Mr. Vandi explained. “There is a nexus between [female genital mutilation] and SGBV,” Mr. Vandi stated. FGM on girls younger than 18 is illegal in Sierra Leone, but never enforced.  

The progress to date

Mr. Vandi stated that significant progress has been achieved in the fight against SGBV,  this includes increase in the number of Family Support Units (FSU) from about 40 to over 70 centers currently; a toll free red line (116) that can be accessed  on all networks to report SGBV; establishment of one-stop centers in Kailahun, Pujehun, Port Loko, Koinadugu, Moyamba and the Western Urban district where survivors can receive free medical care and certificate to prove the assault is in a court of law. The setting up of the Sexual Offences Model Court by the Judiciary and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019 increased the penalty of sexual assault and penetration to life in prison.

The First Lady’s flagship campaign, “Hands Off Our Girls” has also contributed significantly to increase awareness. “Women are now aware of SGBV and they are reporting. They know where to report,” Mr. Vandi stated.

Data from the Family Support Unit, which is established at the Sierra Leone Police to handle, record, charge and prosecute issues of sexual violence, shows that the number of reported cases increased significantly in 2019.  

Reported SGBV cases in Sierra Leone for 2017-2019, disaggregated by sex. Data source: FSU.

“Women are aware. Because of the laws, policies, and the institutional mechanism put in place, a lot of people now have the confidence to report. If the perpetrator is behind bars, the victim has more strength,” Mr. Vandi emphasized. However, this is not enough, and significant detractors at community level risk compromising the government’s efforts.

“The challenge is the culture of silence; a lot of people [still] do not want to report,” he explained, and that is mainly because cases of rape used to linger in courts with no justice, while the survivor of the assault was exposed to shame, ridicule and stigma. Delay in justice and fear of stigma also make victims and their families vulnerable to bribes from the perpetrators.

“The poor people fear that even if they report, no one will take action,” Mr. Vandi stated. So, they would rather take the money, keep silence and stay away from community shame than risking going through a lengthy trial, shame and stigma. 

Charles Vandi, Director of Gender at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs explained that SGBV can happen even among married couples, but women rarely report the abuse.

At the University of Sierra Leone, six out of 10 students interviewed stated that they had been victims of SGBV, either in schools or community. One of them confessed that she was sexually abused by her teacher as a pupil. Another said that “we, as women, are not safe in these learning institutions, as our tutors demand sex from us, and whenever we refuse them, the environment becomes tight for us.”

The numbers are still high in 2020

In 2020, Rainbo Initiative, recorded 3,584 reported cases of SGBV across their five centers in Freetown, Makeni, Kono, Kenema and Bo. Of the total reported cases, 94% were survivors of sexual assault, including a 3-month old baby and a 100-year old woman. The report further revealed that 559 survivors were pregnant at the time they visited a Rainbo centre.

SGBV cases in 2020, reported through the five Rainbo Centres in Sierra Leone

Support for the survivors

Mr. Vandi said that victims of SGBV should be encouraged to report perpetrators, because this is the only way to stop the crimes. Through the national referral mechanism, if a person believes they are a victim of SGBV, they can report the crime to the police, to a hospital, to the ministry or to the one-stop centers. At the one-stop centers, survivors receive free medical examination, medical treatment, and the medical certificate to prove the assault if evidence is found. Moreover, survivors receive free psychosocial counseling, and legal services, as the police will launch an investigation and prosecute the case if sufficient evidence is uncovered. The government has only two safe houses or shelters for survivors of SGBV, in Freetown and Makeni, but partners have a few additional safe locations.

Moving forward, the government developed the National Male Involvement Strategy for Prevention of SGBV and the National Strategy for SGBV Response, with clear referral pathway. The new strategy adopts a socially transformative approach that seeks to accelerate implementation by encouraging the participation of men and boys as change agents and champions of women’s and girls’ rights, in their families, communities, schools and workplaces.

It encourages mitigating conflicts, sensitizing their peers and ensuring survivors receive appropriate services. “Over 99% of those sexual penetrated and exploited, abused, and harassed are women. The majority of abusers are men. We cannot leave them out of the solution,” Mr. Vandi concluded.

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