Sierra Leone : The war is over but violence against women continues

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Raped, tortured and used as slaves during the civil war, the maltreatment of women continues in Sierra Leone. Despite some latest changes, neither the local chiefs nor the public authorities seem to consider the level of agony that they undergo

Freetown,At 23 years, the young Musu does not want anymore children for the fact that she finds it difficult to feed her three children. Due to this decision, she is beaten and raped by her husband of 45 years. “My hasband was beating me and forcing me to have sex with him everyday”, Musu confirmed this to IRIN from freetown, the Sierra Leonnian capital, where she lives with a distant cousin after leaving her husband.

« He wanted other children and won’t stop hitting me. I got fed up » According to Musu, the local chief ignored her cry for help from the ill treatment from the man she was forced to marry when she was only 16years old. She added that she did not go to the police because she did not have money and that policemen always ask for bribes.

The Aftermath of war

Despite new legislation targetting the promotion of the legal status of women in Sierra Leone, their weakness in the face of frequent violence have become, for most of these women, part of their “daily grind”. In a report published on the 1st of November, Amnesty International states that the « brutality is unimaginable » refering to acts of violence which women fell victim to during the civil war that ravaged the country between 1991 and 2002, thus explaining the violence which they still fall victim to even today;

In effect, some 250 000 women and girls (about a third of the female population) were raped, tortured and used as sex slaves, during the war, according to the report. “Rape is the only war crime that is prosecuted today”, says, Tania Bernath, Amnesty International’s expert on Sierra Leone…

More complaints but still very little sanctions

If, as confirmed by lots of specialists, more and more women are filing complaints on domestic violence and rape, it means then that these crimes are frequent, numerous and generally not sanctioned. This impunity is partly self explanatory because of the absence of the means needed to pinalise the criminals, there is also the fact that this is a general practice, according to certain human rights activists.
Musu confirms that she talked about her situation but her complaints fell on deaf ears. « Everytime you talk to the chief, he answered, “man is always right” … it is the custom». It is the prevailing attitude, confirms Jamesina King, présidente from the Human Rights Commission in Sierra Leone. « It is a typical reaction ».

The human rights commission recently organised educational programmes in the north of the country to inform communities about problems concerning violence towards women and quiet a number of members from the commission observed that most people had never heard of women’s rights or were indifferrent to their complaints. Before leaving for Freetown, Musu run away several times to her parents who lived in close proximity to her matrimonial home in Kabala (about 170 kms from the capital). Every time her parents reprimanded her before convincing her to go back to her husband.

Intervention favours impunity

« It is without a doubt a man’s world ; A swarm of chiefs disapprove of Madam Bernath, from Amnesty International. These chiefs have considerable powers and those that try to promote women’s rights are rare ». And even when a chief has to judge a case of domestic violence or a sexual offence, his strategy consists of basically acting as a peace officer to settle the problem considered as a family misunderstanding. « There is still this idea that these disputes must be settled within the family », explains Madam Bernath.

« The intervention in rape cases favours impunity and leaves the government in a position where it has to drop its obligation to prosecute the authors of violence committed against women », States the report from Amnesty International. Sierra Leone is signatory to a number of international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of human rights and the convention on the elimination of any form of discrimination against women.

The law on equal sexual rights voted for un July was expected to accord women the rights that they had never had until now ; but in Sierra Leone, a lot of time is needed for laws to be applied and translated into facts. Sierra Leone is part of several countries that observe the campaign known as « sixteen days of activism against violence towards women », from the 25th of November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to the 10th of December, Human Rights Day.

According to human rights activists, Sierra Leone has however, made some headway. “The mere fact that communities are able to talk about the subject matter (violence against women) as a problem that has to be dealt with is a big step forward”… says Mrs. King, from the Human Rights.

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