The rape culture
A girl aged 5 was raped by a 26-year-old relative leaving the victim paralyzed by the waist in Sierra Leone last year. In a similar incident last year where a 6-year-old was raped by a 56-year-old, the rapist was sentenced with just a year of prison. These were just a couple of the 2 579 cases of sexual violence involving minors in 2018 in Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone has witnessed the rate of sexual violence doubled up only in 2018, with over 8500+ cases reported which increased from 4750 in 2017. The gruesome rape culture roots back to the time of the civil war (1991- 2001), where thousands of women and girls fell victim of widespread sexual violence. The engrained violent attitude among prosecutors towards women and its cultural acceptance has maximized the challenge to root out the problem.
Infuriated by the epidemically increasing sexual violence, President Julius Maada Bio declared rape with minors as a national emergency in first week of February, 2019. The President referred to a 3-year-old’s rape case as a trigger for his action. Along with this, he outlined some ambitious plans like creating special police and court divisions and free hospital care to rape victims and a court division devoted to sexual violence and a national phone hotline. He declared sex with minors as ‘punishable by life-time imprisonment’. This groundbreaking move has been widely welcomed across the country, although some doubts remain as the implementation can be as challenging.
Women behind the wheels
The declaration of national emergency is definitely one of the defining momentums towards terminating the problem. However, we believe this is not an action borne out of elevating numbers of cases only, rather a result of preceding actions being driven by women rights activists and leaders in their own levels. The President’s step is backed by large number of women heroes fighting and raising voices against the problem since decades and advocating for women and girls’ rights and facilities.
To name a few, the popular Radio Journalist Asma James, Fatmata Sorie, President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S along with the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Bio are among these vigorous women who are known for driving these much needed changes.
Asmaa James, enlisted as 100 most influencing nationals in 2018, is popular for her show ‘Good morning Salone” that airs in Radio democracy 98.1 FM. She raises the issues on women and gender based violence on a daily basis through her program. Following her passion on working on issues for women and girls, Asmaa founded the Asmaa James Foundation (AJF) to promote teenage sexual reproductive health and rights. AJF was the organizer of the #BlackTuesday demonstration on 4th December, 2018, where more than 500 people showed up in the street wearing black in the protest of sexual violence and rape with girls under 12. The demonstration was called by the foundation in response to the above mentioned case of a 5-year-old’s rape by a 26-year-old relative. Asmaa James, through her foundation, is committed on raising awareness and increasing education on issues of violence against women with special interest on rape/sexual assault. The campaign was also a significant event leading to raising awareness and indicated urgency on the policy level to act against sexual violence. AJF is also pursuing the alleged case of 5-year-old’ s rape together with L.A.W.Y.E.R.S (Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice) led by its president Fatmata Sorie.
Sorie is by profession an Attorney in the state of New York and she returned to Sierra Leone in 2009 after graduating in International Corporative Law and subsequent years of practice. The organization (L.A.W.Y.E.R.S), of which she is the current elected president, is a network of female legal practitioners who use the law to protect and promote women’s and girls’ rights and provide free legal advice and court representation. Issues the firm deals with range from sexual and domestic violence to matrimonial disputes. The organization, active since 1997, was a key contributor to the successful formulation of Child’s Rights Act , the Domestic Violence Act  and the Sexual Offences Act . Upon Sorie’s presidency, the organization is also a key contributor to the First Lady’s ongoing campaign against sexual violence.
The First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Bio is another leader spearheading the movement against sexual violence through her campaign “Hands Off Our Girls”. The campaign was kicked off on 14th December, 2018 which mainly addresses Child Marriage and Teenage pregnancy, both of which are rampant in Sierra Leone. According to the country’s recent demographic and health survey, 13% of girls are married by their 15th birthday, and 39% of girls before their 18th birthday. The First lady stated that taking sexual advantage of women and girls especially minors is the biggest problem in the country and it is high time that legal authorities and policies strictly address these issues. The first Lady has also emphasized on the importance of civic education to all men and women, and having life time imprisonment policies for prosecutors for faster improvement in the situation.
With such women power in action, Sierra Leone is moving towards the light casting shadows on sexual violence. However, much more yet needs to be done to completely eliminate this deeply enrooted social practice. Although ‘national emergency’ has made the fight one step closer to victory, there should be constant and holistic efforts for successful implementation. Also, the law and policies should address sexual violence in general and not limiting to minors, and ensure services to victims regardless of age or kind of violence. For now, let us celebrate the historic declaration and hundreds of women making it their purpose to root out the sexual violence from society and let us hope for a safer and better educated world.