Sierra Leone: SGBV Cases Remain High Though Progress is Recorded

By Alusine Sesay

Sierra Leone has made significant progress in the fight against Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) after President Julius Maada Bio declared National Emergency on Rape and Sexual Violence and set up Sexual Offences Model Court. Nevertheless, the number of reported cases remains high when compared with the total number of reported other criminal activities in the country.

According to mid-year data (January to June — 2021) from the Rainbo Initiative, a national NGO providing support to SGBV survivors and fighting to end sexual violence, 1691 (1522 sexual assault and 169 physical assault) cases across their 5 Rainbo Centres in Freetown, Bo, Makeni, Kenema and Kono, were recorded.

The data shows that, out of this total, 11 of the survivors tested positive with HIV/AIDS and 242 were confirmed to be pregnant at the time they visited our Rainbo Centres after the abuse. 12 male survivors were also attended to.

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 cases, 94% were survivors of sexual assault, including a 3-month-old baby and a 100-year old woman. The report further shows that 559 survivors were pregnant at the time they visited a Rainbo centre.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) 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 every four criminal cases in Sierra Leone in 2019 was sexual penetration of a minor. Western Area accounted for 39.94% of all cases of sexual penetration in 2019.

Data from FSU, 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 of SGBV increased significantly in 2019.

Kadiatu Sillah is a right campaigner and expert in SGBV. She said that the cases reported are still high taking into consideration that the country has declared an emergency on rape. She also attributed the rising in SGBV cases to the increase knowledge of caregivers to report such cases to the police.

Executive Director for Rainbo Initiative, Daniel H.F. Kettor, said that until recently, rape was often kept a secret, and community stakeholders compromised cases before they could be reported. However, recent political will, improved legislation, and free services to support survivors, have all encouraged people to report the crimes, which may have contributed to the increase in numbers.

“Normally, when there is an increase in awareness, and the services have been readily available, there is a high possibility that people will come out to report. So, the cases still go up because people know about the services, and they think that now the government is responding to their needs,” Mr. Kettor explained.

He stated that people are encouraged to know that free services for support are available at all government hospitals and at the Rainbo Centers. The recent increased awareness and education, and free services have helped boost the people’s confidence to report SGBV cases.

“When people feel that they are not supported, they will not report such cases,” Kettor warned.

Rainbo Initiative (RI) is a National Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Sierra Leone, which provides free, quality, and confidential health care services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).

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

The progress to date

Mr. Vandi stated that significant progress has been achieved in the fight against SGBV, including a recent increase in the number of Family Support Units (FSUs) from about 40 to over 70 centers; the establishment of a toll free red line by dialing 116 from any phone within Sierra Leone to report SGBV; and the establishment of one-stop centers in Kailahun, Pujehun, Port Loko, Koinadugu, Moyamba and the Western Urban districts where survivors can receive free medical care and certificate to prove the assault in a court of law, and the set up of the Sexual Offences Model Court by the Judiciary and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019, which increased the penalty of sexual assault and penetration of minors to up to life in prison, among others.

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.

“Women are aware. Because of the laws, policies, and the institutional mechanisms 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, and believes that significant detractors at community level risk compromising the government’s efforts.

“The challenges are 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 without justice, while the survivor of the assault was exposed to shame, ridicule and stigma. Delay injustices and fear of stigma also make survivors 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, than risking going through a lengthy trial, shame, and stigma.

Support for the survivors

Mr. Vandi said that survivors of SGBV need 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.

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.

Sillah said that in addressing Gender-based Violence, support should be provided to advocacy coalitions , including those of media outlets, civil society groups and research/academic institutions, including the strengthening the capacities of such groups and institutions for establishing accountability of public policies and budgets for addressing GBV; development of national multisectoral action plans and coalitions in opposition to violence against women and girls, and strengthen the institutional; ensure that reproductive health and GBV prevention and response programmes are integrated into all disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes; develop tools and build the capacities of law enforcement officials, including the judiciary and the police, to adopt decisions to protect women from violence and ensure redress and reparations; and promote adequate budgetary allocations, including support for parliamentarians’ advocacy role and for gender-responsive budgeting.

This was produced with support for Journalist for Human Right (JHR) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) 2021 human rights fellowship program.

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