By Fayia Sellu
“We have also committed our nation to the protection of the Girl Child, from rape, early marriage, exploitation, gender-based discrimination and other forms of gender-based violence. To that end, we will review and implement the Sexual Offenses Act, strengthen legislation for women empowerment, women and persons with disability and strengthen child protection services. Let me reiterate that men who rape girls deserved to be jailed for life.” These were the words of President Julius Maada Bio in his maiden address to the nation in 2019.
If the last line of that statement sounds drastic or dramatic to anyone, they are obviously not following the issue of rape in Sierra Leone; it has reach proportions nothing short of epidemic. Yes, it is very bad! When talking about the incidence of rape as an epidemic, there is the tendency to think of it as a scourge that has just been unleashed on girls and women in the country. No. This culture has dug itself deep into our society over the years because of the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators, just like corruption.
We can safely suggest that even in the Western advanced nations, rape has been a thorny issue to curb, especially because traditional power differentials favour likely perpetrators, mostly men, taking advantage of the weaknesses society heaves on the female gender. If many cases of rape and sexual abuse go unreported in the advanced nations, one can only imagine how many sexual offenses are unreported in a country like Sierra Leone. That notwithstanding, the numbers are still astronomical! Police statistics reported a doubling of recorded sexual offences in 2018 to 8,505, up 4,750 from 2017. Pissed off yet? Wait till you know that about a third of those, 2579, are minors.
The leading group dealing with rape victims, Rainbo Initiatives, claim upwards of 70 percent of their clients are minors, some of them literally babies. As if for good measure, just about the time the First Lady Fatima Bio was launching her flagship initiative “Hands Off Our Girls” with the avowed mission of ending, among other things, sex abuse, teenage pregnancy and child marriage, there was talk of one of those jaw-dropping rape cases making the rounds. At the auspicious occasion at Bintumani, where the First Ladies of Liberia, Ghana, Niger, Chad and The Gambia made statements, an obviously exasperated President Bio asked “What kind of man rapes a five year old child?” That’s is because just round the corner from that venue, at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre, a five-year-old was struggling for her life after sustaining spinal and other injuries from anal rape by a 28-year-old man. There was so much outpouring of sympathy for the child. I witnessed a Facebook fundraising effort donate 5 million Leones to help with her medical bills. 98.1 FM Station Manager, Asmaa Kamara James, has been at the vanguard of raising awareness about these rape cases. She organised a protest of more than 500 women, clad in black, impressing on Freetown and the world the direness of the situation. Among them was the country’s first female Attorney General, Priscilla Swartz, who promises to reinforce the laws.
So far, there are boatloads of awareness and political will being summoned to combat the rape culture. But if we agree to call it a “culture,” more is needed for the fight. Fittingly, the word “triangulate” is perfect for capturing what needs to be done. Public aware-ness/ Political will are just the first part. Also, we can never have plenitude of the other two: good laws and a justice system that works, swiftly and efficiently. If the situation is such that of the thousands of cases mentioned above, only 248 were charged to court, and only 26 were successfully prosecuted, it is not for want of good laws. The Sexual Offenses Act passed in November 2012 is almost exhaustive, contemporaneous and modern. The first six sections dealing with rape, put consent at the centre of determining the crime, categorically stipulating that consent cannot be given by persons under the age of 18. That supersedes hitherto customary law that may condone childhood marriages. In fact, it makes the burden of proof of consent squarely on the defendant, even in the event of marriage as defence. For the purposes therein, the Act defines consent as: “agreement by choice and with the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” It covers wide areas, including child trafficking/slavery, pornography, pimping and the mentally disabled. The penalty is pretty standard, 5-15 years jail sentence. One is yet to see anyone get the stipulated jail terms in spite of the gravity of most cases. In one high profile case last year, a 56-year-old man raped a 6-year-girl and got only a year of jail term.
The Justice System, part of the triangle is the most ineffectual. The Human Rights Commission is among the chorus of people and institutions that have fingered the justice system for systemic failure. The odds are stacked against rape victims most of the time, leading to a paltry 26 convictions, ranging from a lack of lab facilities for DNA samples, to inability to afford legal costs. The Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police admits that many cases get settled out of court for above or related reasons. The President cannot talk any tougher on sex crimes or, specifically, rape. The First Lady’s “Hands off Our Girls” has especial traction and women across the country are drawing attention to the scourge. The Sexual Offenses Act is pretty decent as is. What one needs to see is rapid improvement in a Justice sector, which we sometimes erroneously limit to mean the courts and trials. There is urgent need for speedy and commensurable sentences to be handed down. We have to make rape kits ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of Sierra Leone, train our Police on evidence gathering and the forensics of rape investigation. Any case that lacks solid evidence lacks the potential for conviction. It is not rocket science! The ABCs of putting together airtight cases against the perpetrators of rape must be provided for, urgently. The rest of the ducks will, hopefully, fall in line.
The time to end this abhorrent culture is now. We owe it to the tens of thousands girls, women, systematically raped during our war years, and the hundreds, if not thousands, that are at the frontlines of victimhood or survivorship, every day!