SIERRA LEONE: Sex crimes continue in peacetime

Friday, June 20, 2008
Eight years after a civil war in Sierra Leone that became notorious for the extent of rape and violence committed against civilians, social workers fear that rape is more of a problem in post-conflict, democratic society than it was during the war.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which runs four “Rainbo Centres” - counseling and treatment clinics for raped and battered women in Sierra Leone - recorded 1,176 attacks on women around the country last year. Its staff say these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“When we started work just after the war it was to provide medical and psychological counseling to women who had been abused during the war, but the new cases have just not stopped coming,” said Hannah Kargbo, a nurse who treats abused women.

“Some of the perpetrators were children during the war and were exposed to rape and sexual violence then and just carried on doing it,” she said. The highest numbers of cases come from areas where large numbers of ex-combatants are gathered.


“The ministry of health just cannot give it the attention it deserves with [other priorities, including] such high levels of child and maternal mortality,” explained Alan Glasgow, the head of the IRC in Sierra Leone. “They want to, but the resources just aren’t there.”

Even when facilities do exist – like the IRC-run Rainbo Centres - people are very reluctant to come forward and talk about what has happened to them.

“Being raped is stigmatised by society in Sierra Leone,” said Eunice Whenzle, head of the Rainbo Centre in the capital Freetown, who says that even the question of what constitutes a sexual assault is a very complex issue in Sierra Leonean society.

Marital rape is still not considered a crime. It is also still normal for society to blame the victims for what has happened to them, usually for how they dress or comport themselves, social workers say.

Protection of women

Getting a clear statistical picture of the problem is hindered by the country’s still devastated health infrastructure, fractured local government and other humanitarian priorities.

While the number of rapes is unclear, the extent of the problem is acknowledged by officials at all levels as alarming. “Rape is endemic and pervasive,” said one senior UN official, who requested anonymity.

Police officials said most police stations and police sub-offices receive at least one complaint of rape every day.

According to the human rights group Amnesty International (USA), increased rape and domestic violence in post-conflict situations has also been recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

“Studies suggest that domestic violence continues to intensify after conflict and is worse than it was during the conflict,” Amnesty says, urging added attention on protection of women and girls in post-conflict states.

“When states fail to take the basic steps necessary to protect women from domestic violence or allow these crimes to be committed with impunity, they are failing in their obligation to protect women's rights,” it said in a report on post-conflict violence.

Rapists go free

But in Sierra Leone impunity for rapists is still the norm. Of 896 Rainbo Centre clients that sought legal action against their attackers in 2007, just 13 perpetrators received a conviction.

Partly to blame is society’s pressure for silence from the attacked. “The victims think that if other people get to hear about the attack they will be mocked and blamed,” Whenzle said.

Fear of stigmatisation is especially acute among the young girls and teenagers who make up the bulk of rape victims. According to the IRC, between January and December 2007 some 65 percent of the victims it treated were under 15 years old. The youngest client was 2 months old.

“The young ones refuse to go back to school after the attack because they think other children will tease them about it,” explained Whenzle. “Some of the girls completely retract from society, refusing to eat or engage with anyone.”

Even when girls and women do come forward and try to get a legal conviction against their attacker, they face large financial and administrative obstacles to getting the necessary medical exams and certificates, and then an interminable wait for justice.

“The court system is incredibly slow,” said Whenzle at the Rainbo Centre in Freetown. “We try to explain to people that it is nonetheless better to let the justice system run its course, otherwise these crimes will go on and on, but mostly people settle out of court.”

“As a result, rapists go free, and sometimes the same girl is even raped again by the same man.”


Even when victims overcome the social and financial barriers to getting their case heard, the criminal justice system has largely failed to successfully prosecute sex crimes.

“There is no stigma attached to being a rapist in Sierra Leonean society, only to being raped,” Whenzle said.

In some cases, girls are even obliged by their families to marry the man who raped them. “These are mostly uneducated people and their family’s think just giving the girl away is the best thing to do.”

More commonly however, the rapist will offer to give money to the victim’s family as a form of punishment. “Ultimately money becomes more important than the child’s welfare,” Whenzle said.

Amie Kandeh, a gender-based violence expert at the IRC in Freetown, agreed. “There is a total lack of support in society for holding perpetrators accountable,” she said.

“We saw rape and sexual violence used as a tool during the war, and now it is morphing into this culture’s society as something that is understood and even accepted,” said Glasgow, the IRC head.