In Sierra Leone’s fight against rape, a reminder that law is not enough

Why We Wrote This

Top-down decrees send a powerful message. But can they actually kick-start a change in attitudes? That's an especially essential question for activists combating violence against women and girls.

Shola Lawal
Agatha Levi, a media officer for the Rainbo Center, sits outside its office in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Rainbo provides care to survivors of sexual assault.

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For decades, Sierra Leone has recorded high levels of sexual violence. And to many women fighting to change that, their battle felt like an invisible one – until this winter.

Anger finally burst into the open as high-profile cases piled up, particularly against children. Soon, President Julius Maada Bio took the unprecedented step of declaring sexual violence a national emergency, and urged half a dozen reforms. “My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society and will be jailed forever,” he declared, “so that a single rape becomes the last rape.”

But since then, activists’ initial elation has turned to frustration. Lawmakers have rescinded the national emergency. And advocates say there’s been little in the way of real resources or change.

It’s a setback, for sure. But what Sierra Leone’s experience also underscores is where the most important work against gender-based violence needs to happen: at home, in schools, in neighborhoods. Top-down decrees begin with bottom-up education.

After the decree, “more families will step forward to get justice,” says Vickie Remoe, a blogger and activist. But “we need to raise boys in a way where their identities ... do not rely on dominating women.”

“The work is with us.”

The walls of the Rainbo Center are painted a bright, cheery yellow. But on the hardwood seats lined along its narrow waiting area, a heavy silence hovers, occasionally broken by voices escaping closed doors. 

“Number 10!” Mamanama Massaquoi announces, leading a young woman to a room marked “Counsellor.” Ms. Massaquoi is head administrator here at Rainbo, tucked into a maternity hospital north of Freetown: a nonprofit center providing free care to survivors of rape and sexual assault.

Sierra Leone, on the coast of West Africa, has recorded high levels of sexual violence for decades. Its 7 million people still grapple with the aftermath of an 11-year civil war in which rape was a widespread weapon. As many as 257,000 women may have suffered sexual violence during the conflict, which ended in 2002. But the fight against rape has seemed nearly invisible – until this winter.

Public outrage finally spilled into the streets as high-profile cases piled up, particularly against children. In February, President Julius Maada Bio declared sexual violence a national emergency, and women’s advocates celebrated.

Not for long. Today, the national emergency order has been rescinded, and responses to the crisis are back to debate, as Parliament considers a revision of the country’s 2012 Sexual Offenses Act. For activists, the stopping and starting is frustrating. But it’s also a reminder that top-down decrees against sexual violence can only go so far. With or without them, it takes more work to change attitudes – and initiatives from the government’s “Hands off our girls” campaign to “husband schools” are committed to doing so.

The president’s announcement gave “many families the confidence to step forward and has told women and girls that their lives are valued by the state,” says Vickie Remoe, a blogger and TV producer who founded the women’s advocacy group Sisters’ Circles. “But the declaration itself is limited because it doesn’t change the cultural beliefs and traditional gender roles that place girls and women below men.”

Growing outcry

In 2018, reported cases of sexual violence rose to an all-time high of 8,505. Considering stigma and inadequate access to legal services, those are likely only a fraction of the total.

“Back in the day in Sierra Leone, only the rape of children and virgins were considered as ‘serious crimes,’” says Ms. Remoe. “When a girl or woman was raped the focus was on the victim, what she did, and how she brought this on herself. The culture of victim-blaming starts within the family, all the way to the judiciary.”

Of the 3,000-plus cases Rainbo received in 2018, only 1.2 percent were successfully prosecuted, according to director Daniel Kettor.

“The victims just say ‘I leave everything to God,’” says Agatha Levi, Rainbo’s media officer.

But last year, Sierra Leoneans took to the streets over reports of a 5-year-old who was raped by an uncle and sustained injuries that left her paralyzed. As pressure mounted, President Bio declared the national emergency. “With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” he passionately announced.

It was an unprecedented move. The only other time widespread rape was publicly acknowledged was after the civil war, when reconciliation hearings documented the testimonies of hundreds of survivors.

President Bio also announced a six point agenda, including free care for survivors at all state hospitals, special police and judicial divisions to speed up proceedings, and a national hotline to report abuse. Most were merely recommendations, but activists were hopeful.

Bold plan meets reality

In the following months, reported cases at Rainbo Centers doubled. “More women now feel comfortable to tell their stories and even name their perpetrators,” Ms. Levi says. 

A special police unit for rape and sexual violence has been established to try to speed up investigations and prosecutions. But many of the other goals laid down in the president’s recommended agenda have failed to translate into real resources or change, women’s advocates say, including free medical care and hotlines.

“There is the political will, but we’ve not seen any tangible change,” says Fatmata Sorie, a Freetown-based attorney and president of LAWYERS, an all-female legal group aiding survivors. 

Even the national emergency’s centerpiece – life imprisonment for rape of a minor – is not binding until the government amends the Sexual Offenses Act. And the national emergency declaration itself was revoked by Parliament in late June. Some had criticized the president for using a top-down decree, and the legislature is now debating revisions to the Sexual Offenses Act, including life imprisonment for rape of minors.

Some activists hope that new legislation will provide an opportunity for more robust responses, and time to consider unaddressed problems, such as witness protection and underage offenders. As survivors get younger, Rainbo staff say, the perpetrators are increasingly minors, too – a problem they attribute, in part, to inadequate sexual education. 

“The real work rests in our families”

Cases like this are why Sierra Leone’s crisis needs cultural and educational responses, advocates say, to support legal reform. First Lady Fatima Maada Bio has launched a “Hands off our girls” campaign against early marriage and sexual assault, and joined marchers in December.

Ultimately, sexual violence is a symptom of deep gender inequality, Ms. Remoe says, and solving that isn’t something a law alone can do. But she does see more awareness than ever before.

Since 2017, Rainbo has been developing community-specific plans to engage men and boys. “We have monthly meetings where we have intergenerational dialogues – youth, traditional leaders – and we talk about how to tackle and prevent [gender-based violence] in their communities,” says Mr. Kettor, the director. “At the end we come up with action points as to how to go about it.” 

“Men like defending those actions,” he adds. “At first they say women are to be blamed, but when we present the data to them, that makes it more powerful. They can connect it to their own families.”

In eastern Sierra Leone, the Husband School, an initiative of FINE Salone, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equality, also takes a men-led approach, conducting informal classes about domestic and sexual violence.

“The real work rests in our families and our communities,” Ms. Remoe affirms. “We need to raise boys in a way where their identities around masculinity and manhood do not rely on dominating women. We need to raise them to understand that girls and boys are equal, and men and women are equal. The work is with us.”  

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