Sierra Leone government tackles rape epidemic

James Fallah-Williams: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 February 2019:

The head of state of the Republic of Sierra Leone, President Julius Maada Bio, declared last week that rape has become a national emergency, and went on to state that anyone caught molesting minors would be punished by life in prison.

This bold statement and move is applauded by many of us, and we hope that it will be a major turning point in a country paralysed by a culture of impunity, domestic servitude, and downright crude political mentality towards rape and sexual violence against women and children.

The tipping point that forced the President to act was the rape of a five-year-old girl that left her paralysed. As a local NGO, we have been advocating for the past four years of the need to act at state level to bring down severe punishments upon those involved in these activities. We work with many women who have been affected by sexual violence in Sierra Leone.

The tipping point case in question, of the five-year-old, happened way back last year, and had been known to only a handful of people including the minister of Gender, Women, and Children’s Affair.

The minister herself, who had worked within the British Social Services for years before she went home to become a government minister, was deeply shocked. She went on to campaign quietly right at the heart of the administration together with key NGOs to cultivate a result that we are all applauding today.

I came across this case in late September last year when I visited the hospital where we were discussing a project to provide income-generating skills training support services to women treated for fistula.

There she was, the five-year-old, surrounded by medical professionals fighting to save her life, her pelvis had been shattered by the attack and was left paralysed from the waist down.

Up to that point the man, a family member in his mid-twenties, who had done this barbarity was still roaming free in his provincial city, a relative had told me. I left the hospital on shaky legs, and it took me weeks before I could recover from the shock. I had a discussion with my regional coordinator immediately after the visit to pursue the case.

When it comes to sexual violence against women and girls, Sierra Leone has a culture of impunity where perpetrators know that they will get away with it primarily because of the country’s decrepit and dysfunctional judicial system, police ineptitude, and family cover-ups that veer towards coercion with perpetrators.

The colonial legacy of disregard to rape and sexual violence against women sits deep in Sierra Leone’s judicial system, a weapon the colonialists themselves used to subjugate the people; for example, defeated Chiefs were forced to watch their women and children being raped in broad day light by colonial forces.

This culture ran right through the post-colonial era of the 1970s and 1980s during the one-party system and dictatorship of President Siaka Stevens, accelerating during the civil war and the Junta years of the 1990s, and later finding additional political protection in today’s pre and post-election violence that we witness on the streets of the country’s cities and towns.

Alfred Palo Conteh (Photo), who was a government minister until April 2018, once threatened to ‘lift the skirt’ of June Carter Perry, the then American Ambassador to Sierra Leone.

In January this year, 5 police officers allegedly raped a 17-year-old girl who was in their custody at the Bo Central Police Station.

Traditional communities, too, are not protective places for women and children suffering from, or at risk of, abuse.

These traditional communities collectively threaten rape and sexual assault victims with ostracising and ‘curses’ if they report attacks to the authorities.

This gives carte blanche to perpetrators within family circles to continue their activities unperturbed.

Domestic Servitude also, is, without doubt, one of the biggest contributors to rape and sexual assaults on women and girls in Sierra Leone, especially in cities and towns. Children, usually girls, are brought to cities and larger towns by family members with the promise of education and good standard of living.

These are mostly family members who have jobs in cities and larger towns; who visit their villages to bring back young children of their poorer relatives with the promise to ‘look after’ them and put them to school.

These children, when they are brought to cities and larger towns are put to work; carrying out incessant domestic labours such as cleaning, cooking, and laundering for the whole family. These activities are carried out in the mornings and evenings.

During the day, the children are used as street hawkers selling meagre items to bring in additional income for the family. They are the workhorses that raise money to pay the school fees, uniforms, and meet the financial needs of their ‘carer’s children. Added to this, they are physically and sexually abused both at home and on the streets.

Domestic servitude in Sierra Leone is endemic and is compounded by deep-seated cultural practices. This forced labour has its own unique contexts and challenges. For example, many visually impaired people and the disabled have moved from rural areas to live on the streets in cities to beg for money.

When they leave their rural homes, they bring with them children whom they use as guides to help them beg on the streets. These children, like their street-hawking counterparts, are raped and sexually abused on the streets.

I took this photograph of a visually impaired man and a girl of about 8 years old when we pulled at a petrol station in the Lumley area of Freetown. Thoroughly exhausted from begging in the mid-day heat, she refused to go when the man asked her to lead him to the next car. She turned and rest her head on her arms and murmured defiantly at the man.

These vulnerable children are prey to not only those they work with, but also men who prowl on the streets. The government must ban the used of children as street-begging assistants and hawkers as another way of combatting sexual violence against women and children in Sierra Leone.

Of course, downright crude political mentality is equally culpable in promoting sexual violence and rape against women and children in Sierra Leone.

Many communities that are politically aligned mainly because of tribal affiliations refuse to hand over their tribes’ men who are wanted by the authorities for committing assaults on women and children, be it physical or sexual.

They have this sickening belief that if they surrender their tribe’s men, or politically affiliated comrades who are guilty of violent conducts to the ruling government, they are selling or betraying themselves to rival political entities.

Women and girls who innocently wear party political colours are brutally set upon and abused, with perpetrators going free.  These attitudes are sold and defended wholeheartedly by supposedly ‘educated’ politicians who hide behind accusations of ‘tribalism’; a catcall and hiss that stirs their dim-witted associates into street protests and threats of extreme violence should they be touched by the legal system.

We must also not underestimate the taboo word that many refrain from saying in Sierra Leone; FGM, or female circumcision, as it is known locally. Those who oppose this practice face death threats in rural communities.

In January this year, a 10-year-old girl died as a result of FGM in Northern Sierra Leone. These girls, after undergoing this practice, are forced into early marriages to older men. Girls as young as 13 or 14 years old are given into marriage to men who are sometimes five times their age. Many of the fistula cases that are handled by our partner hospitals are caused by early marriages of girls who have undergone FGM.  FGM is a certificate that says, ‘this girl is mature for marriage, regardless of her age!’.

Many of these girls, when they contract fistula or run away from abusive relationships, are rejected by their families and communities, and are forced to live on the streets. The situation is so bad that in December last year we did a special recruitment of a female colleague to work with women and girls who live on the streets in Freetown. We provide educational, skills training and business support services to them.

In this photo, my new colleague and her supervisor provide business support to destitute street hawkers at the roadside. These are high-value merchandise that the hawkers can sell to increase their income.

Those who do not have access to such support mechanisms end up as loiterers. Over 70% of women in prison in Freetown are there for loitering!

There is currently a major case in Kailahun, Eastern Sierra Leone, where a 15-year-old girl was removed from her school by her parents and given into marriage to a 54-year-old man who already has two wives and many children at home.

When the matter was reported to the local Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs office in Kailahun, the girl’s father, Mamadu Jalloh and his wife, Isatu Jalloh forced their daughter to go with her new husband to hide in a neighbouring country in Guinea Conakry. It was from there that the girl was sending SMSs to her friends in Sierra Leone to tell them about her ordeal and what her parents have done to her.

The parents still roam untouched by the dishonourable and unscrupulous justice system. This is absolutely disgraceful!  This girl got one of the best results in the national exams in the whole region this year, and she was just about to enter senior secondary school to prepare for her university entrance examinations.

As the largest independent educational support services provider in Sierra Leone, Practical Tools Initiative targets girls’ schools in the country with new, cutting-edge textbooks to promote school enrolment and retention.

The President’s declaration of rape and sexual assault on women and girls as a national emergency is a major step forward. But there are considerable challenges ahead, especially with the country’s notoriously corruptible and inept law enforcement agencies, the dysfunctional legal system, FGM, crude political mentality, and traditional attitudes towards rape and sexual violence against women and girls.

Sierra Leone is rivetted with down-reaching jobbery and blatantly self-decimating entities culminating in a stagnant state. It requires very bold actions like the president’s to declutter such compressed and sickened minds.

About the author

James Fallah-Williams is a Human Development advocate. He is the Programme Director for Practical Tools Initiative, Sierra Leone’s largest indigenous NGO.


  1. Further to my post yesterday, I have just been sent a copy of yesterday’s edition of the SUN newspaper – the best-selling UK newspaper. Its headline said: “Horror State, Sierra Leone “. It then continues to describe the horrific rape of the five year old child by her uncle in 2018 and the appalling injuries suffered by the child, including her spine being crushed during this appalling act.

    This worldwide press report, just highlights the unbelievable challenge this government has to overcome – the constant bad press it receives on a number of fronts, whilst the President has issued strong action, he will take on these and other crimes

    The government needs to reach out to other countries who have specific units that are set up to help combat these crimes and offer victim support . I will support in any way I can , to help the president’s stand in this deplorable situation.

    • Dear Tony,

      Many thanks for this post, and for your concern for Sierra Leone. We have a lot of work to do in that country, and we have been working with schools, hospitals and clinics, prisons, and community groups and organisations, etc. As a UK registered charity, we even take out UK volunteer medical professionals to work with communities out there.

      The work requires everyone’s involvement, and I am quite happy for you to come with us to Sierra Leone and see for your self. Please send an email to me through the address below the article.

  2. It’s disgusting to hear and read about such barbaric crimes taking place in our country. Our girls and women being raped?
    All of us have rightly condemned it; which is fair enough. But we also have to find solutions to stamp it out of our communities and country. How we do that will be challenging but not impossible. We should all know that it is happening at every level in our society.

    Here is what in my opinion should or can be done. Firstly, there should be a radical judicial reform in cases concerning rape. For example, the culprits should not be given the right to term the situation as consensual. Also, the victims identity should be protected and not allowed to go to court. The court sittings should also be televised. Moreover, the culprits should not only be jailed but be shamed by doing public jobs like taking part in the monthly cleaning exercises with special uniforms identifying them as rapists.There should also be counselling for both the victims and the culprits.

    Secondly, the problem should not only be left in the hands of the central government in Freetown to solve. Our paramount chiefs should make it a point of duty to stamp out rape in their chiefdom. The central government could give them the resources and incentives they need to carry out this type of job which I am very confident they will execute very well.

    Thirdly, the men in our communities should stand up and defend their female neighbour, stranger, mother, sister and aunt. They should have the slogan if you hear or see something suspicious concerning rape or sexual assault, say something.
    Fourthly, women can try to defend themselves if they are caught in such situations. Although it could be difficult depending on the circumstances, but it might work.

    Women can say for example, I am in my period or I have HIV. They can scream or shout loud for someone to hear. They can also say things like, I want to go to the toilet or my friend is waiting for me in the house next door. Just think of anything that will make you escape.

    As regards to the FGM, I always see it as biased. People most times try to put the blame on the head of the initiation ceremony(soway) or the governments which I find very unfair. There are many organizations out there speaking against FGM. Fair enough. But what are they actually doing in these countries to stop it. They criticize the acts and put governments under pressure to find a magical way for a solution.

    I am against FGM. No doubt about that. But we should not only find a sensible way to get rid of it, but also find incentives to help the people in their communities. Things like building schools, health centers and jobs for these women. Also, we should let everyone know that if you allow your daughter to be initiated and she dies for example, it is your fault. Parents should be educated on what will happen if you allow your child to be initiated. Tell then the consequences. They will understand.

    The heads of these initiation ceremonies through out the country should be called at both the chiefdom and local levels for meetings to explain the risks involved. They should also discuss things like; how men will not find your daughters interesting if you have them initiated and also about the problems they will encounter when they want to give birth to a child.

    Finally, the ministry of gender and the first lady’s office should work hand in hand to provide counselling, discussions and seminars through out the country.

  3. This is disgraceful situation, which again brings condemnation from the rest of the world. How on earth can the goverment look to attract tourists when there is an epidemic of rape in the country. The rape of a child is against all of God’s teaching and there needs to be a goverment crack down on these heinous crimes or else this country will be associated with child rape and adult rape with the likes of India – the rape capital of the world.

    Poverty and little education are 2 of the main contributors to this epidemic, but its not a quick fix. The churches and mosques must bring to he attention of their congratulations of these crimes and try and educate them to try and explain the horrendous nature and long lasting trauma a rape victim has for the rest of their lives.

  4. Raping is everywhere in the world today. I am proud of the president our brother taking bold action to put perpetrators against girls and women to lfe inprisonment. This also goes to people who bring their relatives from the villages thinking their chidren are going to big cities to study. These parents must also bear the brunt. They are destroying the lives of our children, especially girls.

  5. As a Social Services worker in the USA, it sadden me to hear about the 5 years old girl that was raped and got paralyzed as a result. The world and its humans have become “Animals”. This in-human activity happens all over the world. But solutions can be found when all citizens participate.

    First of all, We should research the root cause of such a behavior (for example, lack of employment, psycho behavior from the effects of the war; drug; is it spiritually motivated, etc). This is where our Psychologist, Psychiatrist and our spiritual leaders come in handy.

    Secondly, the government must set up a legal framework (we call in USA “Code of Regulations” (at District levels) to establish platform for rules of engagement.

    Thirdly, the governnent must have a robust Child/Adult Protective Service Department within the Ministry of Social Welfare. The CPS Dept should involve, Social Workers, the Police (family division), the Court system (Family Administrative Judges), a Psychologist for evaluation, and Elder family involvement. The main purpose of this setup is for “EARLY INTERVENTION”. Co-operation of older family members must be wooed.

    Finally, Government must provide funding for Foster Care or Adoption, with a legal monitoring system to prevent abuse and abandonment by Foster Care/Adoption parents. Also, sensitization of the populace by way of social media, media and social worker work shops, at national and local levels about the ills of Rape and the consequences. Further, stiffer penalties for those who commit such heinous crime against girls and women.

    This is a difficult task even in the most advanced countries such as the USA. But with all hands on deck, We can achieve much sanity back in our once loving communities where families and friends look out for each other.

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