Sierra Leone: Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, SGBV Fight Records Progress

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By Christian Conteh

Sexual and Gender based violence (SGBV) is one of the major problems affecting women and girls globally and in Sierra Leone specifically. Although every child deserves to grow up free from harm, the practice continues to end their childhood and ultimately risk their future.

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According to a 2020 United Nations report on SGBV 1 in 3 women and girls will experience some form of sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. In Sierra Leone an estimated 62% of women age 15 to 49 report having experienced physical or sexual violence as indicated in the 2019 Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey (SLDHS). It is feared that the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic would increase the rates of SGBV, which are already very high in Sierra Leone.

The Crime Statistics from the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police indicates that a total of 3453 cases of Sexual and Gender Based Violence cases were reported between January to December of 2020 with Freetown –East recording the highest, 948 followed by East 768, South 758, Freetown –West 484, North-East 317 and North-West 178.

Detective Inspector Lansana Tarawally is the unit’s Administrative Officer in Freetown. He says one of their challenges when investigating cases is mobility. Noting that the age limit of victims is getting disturbingly lower by the day.

“Out of the total of 3,453 cases 2,141 are currently under investigation, while 629 are kept in view. 609 have been charged to court and only 74 have been closed.” Detective Inspector Lansana Tarawally says.

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Amidst these gloomy figures, with reported cases on the increase particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, Sierra Leone has recorded historic progress in the fight against SGBV. According to the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) 2019 annual report, out of 12,314 criminal cases, 3,252 were sexual penetration of minors, representing 26.4% of the total criminal activity reported in 2019.

That means that one out of four criminal cases in Sierra Leone in 2019 was sexual penetration of a minor. Western Urban and Rural areas accounted for 39.94% of all cases of sexual penetration in 2019. Women and girls represent over 99% of SGBV victims.
According to Charles Vandi, Director of Gender at the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, there are two existing cultures that continue to negatively impact the fight against SGBV. These are the rape culture and early marriage mentality, which appear too normal for too many Sierra Leoneans. Mr. Vandi explained that there is a nexus between female genital mutilation (F.G.M.) and SGBV.

Mr. Vandi stated that significant progress has been achieved in the fight against SGBV, this includes increase in the number of Family Support Units (FSU) from about 40 to over 70 centres currently; a toll free line (116) that can be accessed on all networks to report SGBV; establishment of one-stop centers in Kailahun, Pujehun, Port Loko, Koinadugu, Moyamba and the Western Urban district where survivors can receive free medical care and certificate to prove the assault is in a court of law. The setting up of the Sexual Offences Model Court by the Judiciary and the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019 increased the penalty of sexual assault and penetration to life in prison.

Hannah Lahai is the manager at the One Stop Centre in Freetown. The centre contributes to addressing sexual and gender based violence cases through the provision of psychosocial counseling, free medical examination and treatment, legal support and access to safe homes.

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She reveals that since the establishment of the One Stop Centre, they have recorded 84 cases. 8 of which were pregnant as a result of sexual penetration, ages between 13 to 16 years old, 1 HIV positive and 1 case successfully convicted. This increase in reported cases she attributes to the increased awareness.

Edwina Conteh is the Nursing Officer and in charge of the Reproductive Health Unit at the One Step Centre. She says when the unit was set up it received supplies from UNFPA to help in the examination and provision of medication for survivors. She however noted that since they ran out of supplies they have not received any to date.

The First Lady’s flagship campaign, ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ has also contributed significantly to increase awareness. “Women are now aware of SGBV and they are reporting. They know where to report,” Director Vandi in the country’s Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs stated.

“Women are aware, because of the laws, policies, and the institutional mechanism put in place, a lot of people now have the confidence to report. If the perpetrator is behind bars, the victim has more strength,” Mr. Vandi emphasized. However, this is not enough, and significant detractors at community level risk compromising the government’s efforts.

“The challenge is the culture of silence; a lot of people still do not want to report,” he explained, and that is mainly because cases of rape would usually linger in courts with no justice, while the survivor of the assault was exposed to shame, ridicule and stigma. Delay in justice and fear of stigma also make victims and their families vulnerable to bribes from the perpetrators.

“The poor people fear that even if they report, no one will take action,” Mr. Vandi stated. So, they would rather take the money, keep silence and stay away from community shame than risking going through a lengthy trial, shame and stigma.

Charles Vandi explained that SGBV can happen even among married couples, but women rarely report the abuse. At the University of Sierra Leone, six out of 10 students interviewed stated that they had been victims of SGBV, either in schools or community. One of them confessed that she was sexually abused by her teacher as a pupil. Another said that “we, as women, are not safe in these learning institutions, as our tutors’ demand sex from us, and whenever we refuse them, the environment becomes tight for us.”

In 2020, Rainbo Initiative, recorded 3,584 reported cases of SGBV across their five centers in Freetown, Makeni, Kono, Kenema and Bo. Of the total reported cases, 94% were survivors of sexual assault, including a 3-month old baby and a 100-year old woman. The report further revealed that 559 survivors were pregnant at the time they visited a Rainbo centre.

Mr. Vandi said that victims of SGBV should be encouraged to report perpetrators, because this is the only way to stop the crimes. Through the national referral mechanism, if a person believes they are a victim of SGBV, they can report the crime to the police, to a hospital, to the ministry or to the one-stop centers.

At the one-stop centers, survivors receive free medical examination, medical treatment, and the medical certificate to prove the assault if evidence is found. Moreover, survivors receive free psychosocial counseling, and legal services, as the police will launch an investigation and prosecute the case if sufficient evidence is uncovered. The government has only two safe houses or shelters for survivors of SGBV, in Freetown and Makeni, but partners have a few additional safe locations.

Moving forward, the government developed the National Male Involvement Strategy for Prevention of SGBV and the National Strategy for SGBV Response, with clear referral pathway. The new strategy adopts a socially transformative approach that seeks to accelerate implementation by encouraging the participation of men and boys as change agents and champions of women’s and girls’ rights, in their families, communities, schools and workplaces.

It encourages mitigating conflicts, sensitizing their peers and ensuring survivors receive appropriate services. “Over 99% of those sexual penetrated and exploited, abused, and harassed are women. The majority of abusers are men. We cannot leave them out of the solution,” Mr. Vandi emphasised.

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