Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights


Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Dec 14 2004 (IPS) - During Sierra Leone’s brutal civil conflict of the 1990s, rape was systematically used as a weapon of war. The conclusion of the conflict in January 2002 did not spell an end to this crime, however. In fact, some allege that rapes are becoming more frequent in Sierra Leone.

"Rape has steadily been on the increase since the end of the civil war two years ago, with our centre servicing hundreds of cases in the eastern province as well as the western area," says Amie Tejan-Kellah, programme officer for the Rainbow Centre.

This organisation, which operates in the capital, Freetown, and in eastern Sierra Leone, has been assisting victims of sexual assault for the past two years. It provides them with medical treatment and counselling, as well as free legal assistance in the event that the victim or their family chooses to take the case to court.

"It is disheartening," Tejan-Jalloh adds. "We recently serviced 198 victims in Kenema district in the east and here in Freetown. Our youngest client is three-and-a-half-months old."

Sierra Leone’s police force appears to share the Rainbow Centre’s concerns: it has set up 24 ‘Family Support Units’ (FSUs) in police divisions across the country to deal with the crime of rape.

"These FSUs are a sort of task force hot on the heels of alleged rapists," the officer in charge of the units, Superintendent Simeon Kamanda, told IPS. "I am confident we will minimise gender-based violence by the measures we have put in place," he added.

"The police force completed 58 recent cases of rape and sent them to court. We secured 19 convictions, among these jail sentences ranging between six years and 22 years," Kamanda noted further.

The Rainbow Centre has joined forces with FSUs and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs to help women affected by rape and other forms of violence. To date, it has trained 150 school guidance counsellors in western and eastern parts of Sierra Leone. The centre has, in addition, provided clinical training for officials of the Ministry of Health and Sanitation.

The Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) also acknowledges that rape poses a considerable problem in the country.

Director Christiana Thorpe has set up a school where hundreds of rape survivors have received counselling – and an education to help them escape the poverty that can make women more vulnerable to rape. The institution also caters for girls who fall victim to other sorts of violence.

"It is a worthy cause. Many of these girls are traumatised and our job here at FAWE is to help rehabilitate them," says Thorpe.

Some of the pupils at the FAWE school are ex-combatants. During the civil war that erupted in March 1991, rebel forces and militias that supported the government abducted hundreds of teenage girls and women and turned them into sex slaves.

FAWE has also established vocational and skills training centres in other parts of Sierra Leone.

"In most of the rape cases reported here, children between the ages of six and 15 are the victims – and 40 percent of them have previously been abused," says sociologist Michael Tommy.

"The perpetrators have mostly been adults who prey on children by luring them with candies, petty cash or just bullying. I think harsher measures must be taken against these heartless people," he adds.

The social welfare ministry is also lobbying for tougher laws as far as children are concerned. Its child welfare department is currently working with the Law Reform Commission on ways of strengthening legislation concerning children’s rights.

For his part, Sierra Leone’s outgoing chief justice, Abdulai Timbo, has called for more consistent sentences to be handed down to those found guilty of rape. In addition, he has highlighted the need to expedite rape trails.

Now, the United Nations Development Programme has agreed to provide funding for 13 magistrates as well as transportation in an effort to have alleged rapists tried more quickly.

On the street, views concerning rape are sharp and uncompromising.

"They (rapists) should be castrated. It is a wicked act. I think no bail should be granted to rapists when taken to court," remarks Musu Mansaray, a mother of two whose 12-year old daughter was raped in Freetown.

Adds Bassie Sesay, a school teacher: "The only place for rapists is the maximum security prison. We’ve had too much of this menace around. During the war, it was forceful seizure of our children by rebels. Now that there is peace, the authorities must act tough."

Sierra Leone’s civil war pitted the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against a series of presidents and coup leaders. The conflict, waged largely over control of the country’s diamond deposits, resulted in extensive human rights abuses. RUF rebels gained infamy for their willingness to amputate the limbs of civilians.

In June this year, a United Nations-backed court began trying those accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes in Sierra Leone.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh died of natural causes before he could appear in court, however. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who is said to have played a key role in the war by providing rebels with weapons, has yet to be arrested.

He is presently exiled in Nigeria, which has declined to hand him over to court officials.

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