Sexual violence refers to any aggression, physical or psychological, done by sexual means or by targeting sexuality (Taylor, 2003). According to Taylor (2003), sexual violence comprises Rape and attempted sexual assault, and crimes like forcing an individual to undress in public; coercing two victims to engage in sexual acts or hurt one another sexually; mutilating an individual’s genitals or a female’s breasts; and sexual enslavement. In Sierra Leone, thousands of girls and women of all ages, ethnic groupings, and socioeconomic classes were exposed to systematic and widespread sexual assault during the war from 1991 to 2001; these included gang and individual rape, as well as rape with items such as firearms, umbrellas, firewood, and pestles (Taylor, 2003). The author adds that these acts of sexual violence were typically marked by extreme brutality, and they were frequently preceded by additional heinous human rights violations against the victims, their families, and their communities. Teachers, senior students, and peers are reported to be the main perpetrators of sexual assault in schools (Worldwide, 2010). Bike riders, NGO workers, and other elite older individuals who are commonly referred to as “Sugar Daddies” are the principal culprits in the household and neighborhood. Taylor (2003) contends that the country’s laws regarding certain sexual violence acts are unclear even for those who work in the justice system, such as judges and police officers. Again, they are outdated, dating back to the British Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (Taylor, 2003).
Background: violence against girls
Sexual violence against girls and women is a global health issue that has long-term consequences on survivors’ development and health (Sinclair et al., 2013). According to Mohammed (2015), Women who have been sexually abused in the past, as well as those who have been sexually abused as children, are more likely to be assaulted again. Sexual violence against women is all too widespread, but it is an overlooked human rights violation around the world. World Health Organization indicates that one out of every three women has experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in her life (WHO, 2021). However, it is more prevalent among young girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, which occurs as a result of high amounts of exposure to certain harmful variables (Ellsberg et al., 2005). Sierra Leone, in West Africa, is one of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with a high rate of child sexual abuse.
Unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs), as well as miscarriages, are just a few of the dangers that women who have experienced physical or sexual abuse face. Furthermore, this sort of abuse saps women’s vitality, jeopardizes their physical and emotional well-being, and gradually erodes their self-esteem (Ellsberg et al., 2005). The situation in Sierra Leone is one of the worst in the world, with disparities and vulnerabilities particularly acute for minor girls (Delomez, 2015). The country is dealing with a rape pandemic that is going unnoticed. The Rainbo Initiative, the country’s only organization that provides free medical and psychosocial care to victims of gender-based violence (GBV), reported that 3,584 cases of GBV were recorded across its five centers in 2020, with 209 (6%) cases of physical assault and 3,339 (94%) cases of sexual assault; around 70% of these cases involve minors (Rainbo Initiative, 2021). And the numbers are almost certainly greater due to other unreported cases. The country has an alarmingly high number of rape cases, as well as a long history of violence against women and girls.
During the civil war in Sierra Leone, it is believed that about 250,000 women and girls were subjected to sexual or GBV (Mills et al., 2015). According to the authors, sexual slavery, multiple and gang rapes, forced labor, forced pregnancy, mutilation, and abduction were among the horrifying and indescribable acts of violence they endured. Whereas the specific types of violence were astounding, the occurrence of sexual and GBV perpetrated against women during the conflict built on the past trends of GBV and a system of gender relations where women were politically, economically, and socially marginalized, as noted by the country’s TRC (Mills et al., 2015). Mills et al. (2015) report that sexual violence was perpetrated by all military factions in the country during the war, including the 3 main factions (the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Civil Defense Force (CDF), and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), as well as the West Side Boys, an AFRC splinter group.
Healthcare Services and violence against girls
Long after the assaults have occurred, sexual violence often has an impact on the mental and physical well-being of victims (Human Rights Watch, 2003). In addition to some victims’ unwillingness to look for medical treatment, a dearth of health facilities, particularly in the provinces, and lack of funds for transportation and drugs has resulted in victims’ poor health. In Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch (2003) reports that victims are just able to seek medical treatment weeks after the abuse had occurred, for instance, after escaping from rebel captors. In violent intercourse or any sexual encounter in which a girl or woman is hurt, the risk of HIV and other STIs is considerably enhanced. Because the armed struggle in Sierra Leone, like other wars, served as a vector for STIs, clinicians and other health workers questioned by the Human Rights Watch observed a high frequency of STIs among victims (Human Rights Watch, 2003).
Accessible Community Healthcare Services
Despite regulations for free healthcare under the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Offences Act in Sierra Leone, practitioners claimed that many physicians and healthcare professionals still seek payment from violence against women and girls (VAWG) victims before delivering care (Leone & Sudan, 2018). Health services that exist are sometimes difficult to get and ill-equipped to meet the requirements of VAWG victims. Despite national efforts to strengthen the health sector’s responsiveness to VAWG, treatment delivery is often ineffective, especially for rural women, due to a shortage of qualified doctors who can handle rape and other sexual-related problems. Even where there is health accessibility, informants highlighted that there are no professionals particularly trained in rape therapy, and VAWG health services are generally provided by foreign and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Leone & Sudan, 2018). For victims of VAWG, the International Rescue Committee (IRC)-established Rainbo Centers, for instance, have been offering extensive psychiatric and medical remedies, as well as referrals to the judicial department. Whereas this strategy has been successful in delivering services, it has failed to transfer ownership to the Ministry of Health (MoH) as the situation has changed from violence to peace. Nonetheless, to run the centers, an independent ‘Rainbo Initiative’ was founded, and links to the Ministry of Health are growing (Leone & Sudan, 2018). According to Leone and Sudan (2018), this comprises plans to create a new center in the northern part of the country, with a strategy that emphasizes state ownership from the beginning.
Policing and violence against girls
As a country, Sierra Leone has put some attempts within its security segment to offer advanced training for security actors and police so that they can appropriately respond and offer effective support to VAWG victims (Leone & Sudan, 2018). For instance, Family support units (FSUs) are a structure inside the police department; however international donors provide a significant part of the money for these units (Leone & Sudan, 2018). FSUs have established standard operating procedures (SOPs) for dealing with sexual offenses and domestic violence, and they have attempted to find safe spaces in police stations where VAWG cases can be filed. The majority of referrals to VAWG centers, according to informants, came from specially trained police officers (Leone & Sudan, 2018). As a result, there is some proof that when law enforcement is properly taught, they will collaborate with service providers to assist VAWG victims. Nonetheless, it has been reported that specialized officers educated on VAWG by service providers are usually transferred to different police departments, implying that the probability of getting efficient police attention remains variable (Leone & Sudan, 2018).
Violence against girls – policy and laws
Even for those who work within the justice system, such as judges and police officers, Human Rights Watch (2003) states that the laws surrounding rape in Sierra Leone are incomprehensible; they are also outdated. For instance, the difference between illegal carnal knowledge of a girl below the age of 13 and illegal carnal knowledge of a girl between the ages of 13 and 14 is highly problematic in Sierra Leonean law. Although the rare cases concerning this age bracket that have gone to trial have apparently been tried as rape, the law is uncertain about illicit carnal knowledge perpetrated against individuals aged 14 to 16 (Human Rights Watch, 2003). The way rape is handled in the country under customary law reflects societal attitudes on sexual violence and the poor ranking of women. Despite the fact that all significant criminal cases ought to be prosecuted under the general law, cases of rape are nonetheless prosecuted in local courts under customary law (Human Rights Watch, 2003).
Whereas there has been great improvement in terms of enacting new policies and laws, now is the time to concentrate on implementation. According to Denney and Ibrahim (2012), programming should have a greater emphasis on how to put new policies and regulations into effect. Part of this entails instituting the frameworks that will make implementation easier. This type of investment in the structure required for implementation should then be matched with efforts to overcome possibly the most significant barrier to accessibility — culture (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012). Even where policies/laws are adequately capacitated and prepared, Denney and Ibrahim (2012) contend that services that provide more options for women who have been victims of abuse must be normalized such that their use becomes routine.
Violence against girls and NGOs
The international community backs several major programs for women and gender equality in the country (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012). A number of the GBV-related programs financed and conducted by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) arose from the countermeasures established towards the end of the armed conflict. INGOs are going on to assist a multitude of social, economic, and political programs that target women; however, the international community is now shifting its attention to long-lasting development programs (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012). They are seeking to enhance coordination and eliminate duplication, as well as strategize collaboratively to guarantee that their services, notably awareness-building and capacity-building, are expanded as widely as possible across the country. During the war, the IRC started working on sexual assault, and it continues to have the most extensive GBV program of any of the INGOs active in Sierra Leone (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012). Secondly, all of Oxfam’s programs prioritize gender equality, and they have been involved in GBV-associated activities through their participation in the Interagency Coordinating Committee for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (CCSEA) (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012). Thirdly, GOAL runs an initiative in nine villages in the Freetown area that focuses on poor and vulnerable youths. Finally, Save the Children (SCF) has identified sexual abuse of minors, as well as GBV in general, as a concern that has to be tackled as part of their ongoing commitment to child safety (Denney & Ibrahim, 2012).
Sierra Leon news and reporting of violence against girls
As it is in many other countries, sexual violence is viewed as a “private matter” in Sierra Leone. Consequently, GBV such as sexual assault and rape, as well as other forms of GBV, are under-reported. Evidence shows that individuals do not disclose sexual violence cases to formal agencies because of the rippling impact they can have in close-knit societies. The prospect of someone within the society spending many years in prison may make individuals even more hesitant to come forward (UNFPA, 2022). However, in 2020, the Global Program to End Child Marriage, UNFPA undertook a campaign to make sure the citizens are aware of the persistence of GBV (UNFPA, 2022). Radio, SMS, pre-recorded calls, as well as social media channels, were used to launch the promotion in Freetown. The messages on these theme areas were delivered via phone calls and texts to all 645,000 active Africell users in Freetown. The text messaging promotion was subsequently rolled out countrywide in September with a target of all 3.9 million users of the Africell network in the country (UNFPA, 2022).
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Denney, L., & Ibrahim, A. F. (2012). Violence against women in Sierra Leone: How women seek redress. Overseas Development Institute.
Ellsberg, M., Heise, L., & World Health Organization. (2005). Researching violence against women: a practical guide for researchers and activists.
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