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In Africa, justice for 'bush wives'

Sierra Leone's special court rules that forced marriages are a crime against humanity. Soldiers who take women by force in Uganda and Congo may also face prosecution.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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Freetown, Sierra Leone

Fatmata Jalloh was just a kid selling pancakes on a rural road in Sierra Leone when a rebel soldier snatched her and made her his wife.

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"I was a child. I didn't know anything about love at that time ... but he said, 'If you don't take me [as your husband], I'll kill you,' " she remembers.

For two years, until Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war finally ended, Ms. Jalloh was the domestic and sexual slave of her "husband." She cooked and cleaned for him; he fed and sheltered her.

"There was no way not to do it," she says. "If I would leave, I would have no food. He would kill me."

Jalloh is one of thousands of African "bush wives," women taken against their will and forced to be spouses of soldiers. Public health and human rights groups estimate that over 60,000 women were victims of sexual violence in Sierra Leone, and that thousands suffer similar fates in ongoing conflicts in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, an international criminal tribunal says forced marriage is a crime against humanity, in a ruling experts say may change the way future war criminals in Africa and elsewhere are prosecuted.

"What had occurred here with forced marriage was something very serious and very specific, and wasn't fully recognized," says Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which is trying nine military leaders thought to be the most responsible for crimes committed during the struggle over political power and control of the country's diamonds. "It was part of a widespread attack against civilians. Women were being taken as wives without consent, either consent by them ... or by family members."

The court's first rulings on the charges, brought against three members of the notorious Revolutionary United Front, are expected in July.

Forced marriage had long been considered a variation on sexual violence. The Special Court's trial chamber had considered it a "redundant" charge already covered by charges of rape and sexual slavery. But Mr. Rapp insists, and the court's upper chamber agreed, that forced marriage is a discrete crime.

"Of course it [forced marriage] almost always involved sex, but it involved other things – an exclusive, essentially lifetime relationship under the control of a man, a demand that this individual [the wife] provide ... household services, travel with the man, care for his needs, and everything else," Rapp says.

The decision paves the way for similar charges in northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rights groups have documented the use of bush wives in ongoing conflicts. Brigid Inder, executive director of the Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice at The Hague, says the practice is a common way of rewarding commanders and organizing battalions in the Lord's Resistance Army, which has terrorized Uganda's Acholi population for nearly 20 years. Her group has also documented the "rewarding" of bush wives to soldiers in three separate militias in Congo.