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.