Alusine Sesay: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 March 2023:
In Sierra Leone, public-facing women – including women leaders, women human rights defenders, and women journalists – face an increased risk of threats, intimidation, online insult, and violence.
According to a recently published report, these threats are often made in an attempt to push such women out of public spaces and diminish their voices.
The report, titled “Threats Against Public-Facing Women in Sierra Leone”, was released by the Sierra Leone Association of Women in Journalism (SLAWIJ).
The report says that, of the women activists and journalists consulted by SLAWIJ, 64% have personally experienced at least one form of threat or harassment, either online or offline – including physical violence, verbal threats, and attacks against family members.
However, even though these threats have been documented, the authorities are not doing enough to tackle them.
Hon. Rugiatu Rosy Kanu is a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Gender and Children’s Affairs. She said she has faced multiple threats and violence, in the course of her professional work.
Photo: Hon. Rugiatu Rosy Kanu, a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Gender and Children’s Affairs
She said that late last year she was assaulted together with another female Member of Parliament, in the well of the Sierra Leone Parliament. She explained that the incident happened when lawmakers from the main opposition boycotted a session in Parliament, and the police were called in to get them out of well of parliament.
“I suffered injuries on my arm and lost my bracelet as a result of the physical violence,” she explained. “This happened in the full view of the authorities and there were CCTV cameras which recorded the incident. But nothing happened afterwards.”
She said that even though it’s her right to report the matter, she didn’t bother to do so because she felt the authorities would not take her matter seriously. As she explained – the incident occurred in the presence of the authorities, and they did not take any steps to help.
In another incident, Hon. Kanu said that when she was vying for Member of Parliament, her male opponent hired young men who came around her vicinity and sang derogatory songs against her. She said she felt very offended by the actions, adding that it took strong courage for her to continue the race.
“Such verbal threats do not only affect me psychologically as a public-facing woman, but it also affects my family including my children,” she said.
At present, Hon. Rosy Kanu said there are numerous laws that protect women in Sierra Leone. She cited the Sexual Offences Act, which protects women and girls from sexual abuse; the Cybersecurity and Crime Act 2021, which also protects public-facing women from threats and violence online; and the Domestic Violence Act 2007, which criminalizes domestic violence, including physical, emotional, economic, and verbal and/or psychological abuse.
However, she said that, while the laws exist, the authorities are not doing enough to enforce them. This, she attributed, both to weak capacity of the police and political interference in such matters.
She also said that, when women face threats and violence, they often hesitate to report the matter to the police – because they are afraid, ashamed, or stressed about what might happen if they do.
“In most cases, when victims report such matters, the next minute they will be [targeted] on social media,” she explained. “When these things become circulated on social media, sometimes men use them to ridicule you – [so some women] decide to keep silent on the threats and abuses they encounter during the course of their work.”
These types of experiences can cause great emotional distress for public-facing women, said Hon. Kanu, and as a result, many women are discouraged from taking part in decision-making processes, or engaging in public spaces.
Hon. Catherine Zainab Tarawally is a Member of Parliament representing Constituency 037 in Bombali District. She said she has faced cyber bullying many times. She said that her attacker insulted her mother and uttered insulting remarks against her. However, she did not report the incidents to the police, because of the protracted delay in investigating such matters at the police station.
The Executive Director of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI), Abdul Fatoma said that authorities have largely failed to tackle threats against public-facing women. He said that when public-facing women report threats or violence to the police, many times the issues are compromised at the police station, as people with political connections interfere, and prevent perpetrators of threats from being prosecuted. Additionally, he said that the police are often under-resourced to take on such investigations.
“We have failed to implement existing laws which protect women,” Fatoma said – adding that, at this point, “I don’t see the urgent need to review our legislations that protect women, because we haven’t implemented them.”
According to GoSL’s Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy (GEWE) 2023, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Sierra Leone is “grossly under-reported due mainly to stigma, reprisal and ostracism and inadequate, weak, and inconsistent response and support mechanisms.”
Millicent Kargbo, Executive President of the Sierra Leone Association of Women in Journalism (SLAWIJ) agrees with this statement. However, she adds that in many cases, another contributing factor is the widespread lack of knowledge, when it comes to actually utilizing the laws that protect women – many of which provide that a complainant should provide evidence to prove her own case. She said that this aspect of the law discourages many women from reporting threats or violence to the police, as they don’t know how to go about collecting evidence to support their own case.
She said that the police should have the structure, personnel, and equipment to dig out evidence related to threats against women, both offline and online. Personally, she holds the view that issues of online threats against public-facing women should be investigated by the police, even when such matters are not reported to them. If they become aware of such an incident, then they should investigate. However, she said that as it is, the police simply don’t have the capacity – either the personnel or the equipment – to speedily investigate such cases.
Stephen V. Lansana is a journalist and law student. He is currently implementing a project aimed at gathering stakeholders to identify possible areas for amendments to existing laws, that protect women and girls from threats, both online and offline. He maintains that the existing legislations are not sufficient to protect public-facing women from threats they may experience during the course of their work.
Photo: Stephen V. Lansana
In particular, he said that Section 44 (1) of the Cybersecurity and Crime Act, 2020 restricts the activities of public-facing women to hold the authorities accountable for wrongdoings. “In other words, it’s an indirect way of censorship. Therefore, I recommend a repeal of Section 44(1) so that public facing-women will be able to carry on their activism without fear.”
Lansana furthered: “There are no laws set aside for the protection of activists or public-facing women. However, there are general laws that are for the protection of all.”
Unfortunately, Lansana says that many women – public-facing women included – do not know enough about the existing laws, and as a result they often suffer in silence. According to him, more education is needed, to ensure the laws are fully utilized.
Director of Gender for the Ministry of Gender, Charles B. Vandi said that the issue of violence against public-facing women has been a concern at the Ministry.
He said that Sierra Leone has acceded to many international treaties which protect the rights of women, including the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (better known as the Maputo Protocol), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, among others. Additionally, he noted a number of deliberate Government policies to protect women and promote gender equality, including the Domestic Violence Act, the Devolution of Estates Act, the amended Sexual Offences Act, the National Referral Protocol on Gender-Based Violence, the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Policy, and the Gender Empowerment Bill.
Vandi said that the Ministry is working with the police and the judiciary to bring perpetrators of violence against women to book, adding that the Ministry has two senior officials assigned to the Sexual Model Court currently working with the judiciary to fast-track cases relating to violence against women and children.
Vandi said that they have also been holding a series of trainings educating women traditional leaders on the laws that protect women – but added that such trainings are not enough. The effective implementation of existing legislation, he says, is of utmost importance if violence against women is going to be minimized. It is only when the existing legislations are fully implemented, he said, that it will be possible to determine whether there is a need for further amendments.
When asked whether the Ministry of Gender Affairs had any concerns regarding the safety or protection of women candidates in the coming elections, Vandi said that they are very concerned; adding that they had recently held a meeting with key stakeholders, to identify threats against public-facing women, and came up with solutions to mitigate some of those threats.
Head of Police Media, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Brima Kamara said that the police are aware of threats against public-facing women, including incidents of verbal insults, online threats, and physical violence.
He said that when they encounter such cases, they conduct investigations, with the goal of ensuring the protection of the women and apprehending suspects. As an example, he cited the case in May 2018 when the Mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr sustained injuries to her arm after being physically assaulted by a group of people. He said that the police provided security for the Mayor and ensured her safety.
He also cited a recent case in which Asmaa James, the female station manager for Radio Democracy, faced online insults – adding that, while the police apprehended the suspect, James decided to drop the case.
He said that the police normally put out a press statement as a proactive step to respond to such situations – but admitted that it is difficult for the police to monitor online threats, especially when cases involve private accounts or closed discussion groups.
Should any woman experience harassment or violence, either online or offline, Assistant Commissioner Kamara encourages them to try their best to collect any evidence, and identify possible witnesses, to present to the police. It is this type of evidence, he said, that will help support a thorough investigation.
He concluded that the police need software, equipment, and training to help bring offenders more quickly to justice.
Naasu Fofanah, a psychosocial counsellor, said that violence against public-facing women affects their professional progress and limits their public space, because they may decide not to pursue their course due to fear of violence.
Photo: Psychosocial counsellor Naasu Fofanah
She said that when women face threats, they often feel depression, anger, and low self-esteem, which could have long lasting effects on them.
She said that counselling is an effective tool which can be used to address these challenges, though accessing such services can be difficult in Sierra Leone. In the absence of counselling support, she advises that any women (or men) who face threats or violence in the course of their work should be encouraged to talk about the situation with trusted friends, family members or colleagues – as this can help to break the silence. Additionally, if needed, she says they should seek professional medical assistance.
Note: This report was produced with support from Internews U.S. WIRED – Public Facing Women Fellowship 2022 – 2023.