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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.

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But Ms. Inder doesn't expect officials at the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world tribunal with jurisdiction over war crimes, to add indictments for forced marriage to its cases in Uganda or Congo any time soon."

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"We hope they bring these charges where there is evidence of these crimes ... in the future," says Inder, who has pressed the ICC to investigate gender-based violence in Congo. "But I doubt that ... the prosecutor will amend any of his current charges."

Donald Steinberg, deputy president for policy at the International Crisis Group and former ambassador to Angola, says even if the new crime isn't prosecuted on a large scale, the Sierra Leone court's precedent may help deter forced marriage in the future.

"There's no way I believe that you're going to prosecute a large number of individuals in any of these situations, because the practice is so common in a civil war," Mr. Steinberg says. "If you can do a few very notable prosecutions almost as examples, then there is the possibility ... that this is going to have a deterrent effect ... to be very honest, that's going to be minimal."

More influential, he says, may be the role this precedent plays outside the courtroom. Because the ruling puts forced marriage on the map as a specific crime, he says, negotiators brokering peace deals might think twice about offering amnesty to its perpetrators.

"Amnesty in these situations means men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women," Steinberg says. "It's viewed too many times by negotiators as a very easy step to take.... If more negotiators were to hear of this development and walk into negotiations and say simply, 'No amnesties for this type of activity,' I think it would make a difference."

Sierra Leone's own conflict ended in a peace deal that promised blanket amnesty to the foot soldiers of the war – which, ironically, limits the utility of the Special Court's decision for the very victims it has recognized.

"It's not, from a practical standpoint, very useful," Rapp says. The structure of the court means women can't bring charges there, and because the precedent hasn't been procedurally adopted as part of domestic law, they can't yet pursue civil claims in national courts either, he says. Besides, he adds, "most of the people convicted in these crimes don't have assets."

It's not money that someone like Siaoh Farroh is after. Taken as a forced wife after her husband and her newborn were killed, she wants the kind of justice that comes with punishment. She wants to put her "husband" in front of the Special Court. She would say: " 'This is the one who did that to me. Make them suffer for what they've done. If you're jailing others, jail him. If you're killing others, kill him.' "

Others, like Fatmata Jalloh, have moved on. She beams when she recounts how she met her new husband, the same way she met her ex-soldier: selling goods on the side of the road. When she hears of the ruling, she says it makes her happy.

"Now they can try to abolish the thing. Not even for me," she says. "For other women coming, so they don't have the same story."