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Prescribing a cure for Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Sierra Leone

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

By Chief Superintendent of Police, Mira Dumbuya

Kadijatu Madinatu Saccoh was only five years old when her childhood was snatched from her by a relative. Autopsy results indicate that Kadijatu had been raped (allegedly) multiple times, leading to her demise.

What followed led me to post on Facebook the following:

"It's a new day...time for new our fight for justice, BUT 1st, kindly delete that gentle soul's pic from all your posts. It was wrong to do so in the first place, but since we've made our statements with her image, kindly give her some peace now. Let's re-strategize...& do more impactful things. Things that would help other girls she left behind. Please."

The shocking rape culture and Kadijat's story has catapulted our nation once again to the world stage, albeit for the wrong reasons. While distraught, and still trying to come to terms with this ugly and despicable act, I penned my thoughts.

For each horrific case of rape, we get angry and rush to the streets. After a few days of outcry, all is forgotten, only to be remembered when another despicable incident occurs. Our cycle of response is short-lived, and this has happened repeatedly.

The outcry followed by silence

Remember the brutal death and alleged gang rape of 17-year-old Hannah Bockarie in 2015 at Lumley Beach? Candle lights processions, a vigil and wreaths were laid, and like little Khadija, we carried placards and chanted "We want Justice", and "We are all Hannah". In the aftermath of the 2018 election, there were reports of rape which sparked an outcry, and just like Hannah, there was radio silence after a few weeks. In January this year, an old woman, the senior sister of Paramount Chief Melrose Foster Gberie was purportedly gang-raped in the chief's compound in Kpande-Kemo Chiefdom, Bonthe District. In each of these instances, women's groups and activists protest, write strong statements and months after, everything is silent. The outcome of each of these cases was also the same: no conviction or matter still pending.

In Kadijatu's case, her sweet innocent pictures and medical results strewn all over social media left me weeping. It affected my thoughts as I relived her ordeal over and again, feeling her pains, and her very last moments of torment. I was angry and sad at the same time, and I transmitted that rage to displaying numerous posts on Facebook on a single day. The truth is, she cannot be brought back to life. Now, the question we should be asking ourselves is, what next?

Immediate actions

On 22nd June, thousands of people outraged over what happened defied the risks of being infected with Coronavirus when they marched through the streets of Freetown protesting. The demonstrators marched to the Sierra Leone Police Headquarters, the Attorney General and Minister of Justices' office, and the Cotton Tree. They held signs and placards and chanted songs demanding justice for Khadija.

A protest is a tried and tested way to be heard; the late reggae king Bob Marley sang in 1973: "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight". We have always protested in each significant case. So, I understand the status quo, but what are we doing to address this menace against our girls? Have we been strategic enough? Have we done all we must? I'll categorically respond on behalf of us all, "No".

Next Steps

Most of my 14 years in the police service have been at the Family Support Unit (FSU). I understand the challenges with Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), and because of that, please permit me to recommend the following 14 key steps to cure our widespread problem:

1. Taskforce Established & National Action Plan

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year, President Maada Bio promised the setting up of a Taskforce. With rape now a public emergency, and cases continuing to rise, it is time for such to be constituted. It should comprise of wide-ranging experts on the subject matter with a mandate to advise the Presidency on SGBV. I will recommend its mandate include coming up with, and implementation of, a National Action Plan to strategically respond to SGBV. Members should be able to monitor each case of SGBV from investigation to possible conviction with the vigour and the seriousness it deserves.

2. Intensive Police Training

Second, a serious effort should be made to train the Police on proactive investigations of SGBV cases. It should include evidence gathering, sensitive ways to communicate with victims, interrogation of suspects, protecting crime scenes and giving testimony in court.

Convicting perpetrators of rape is a highly effective deterrence, but as a country, we see only a 1.2 percent conviction rate. The challenges include "insufficient evidence" which relates to lack of DNA, unwilling witnesses, shoddy investigations in some cases and the "compromise" of cases by families and relatives.

3. Media Training and Public Education on Social Media

There is the need to train and educate the media and broader public on handling the sensitive issue of SGBV and how to advocate for SGBV cases without compromising the legal investigations.

Many a time, people have been quick to share victims' images, full name and other details on Facebook and other platforms without thinking about the effect it may have on the individuals, their relatives or even in dispensing justice itself. Mass awareness-raising drive through flyers, posters and short videos shared on such platforms might provide the necessary education to cushion such a growing challenge.

4. Adequate resource given to Police

The Police need the right resources to be able to carry out their investigations of SGBV cases, including fuel to visit the crime scene and officers getting their salary on time. The SLP boast of many competent lawyers that should be used as prosecutors in SGBV cases. Having a non- lawyer police officer prosecutor going toe to toe against highly skilled Defence lawyer can be like a cat fighting a lion. There is a considerable likelihood that the possibility of compromise will be drastically reduced if not eradicated if the Police and prosecution were well resourced to carry out their duties.

5. Forensic Lab Established

The need for a Forensic Evidence Lab to collect DNA, which is key to convictions, cannot be overemphasised. This would reduce cases being thrown out of court based on lack/insufficient evidence which would increase conviction.

Most rape cases are done in secret and getting evidence that is "beyond all reasonable doubt" as required by law is challenging. With a Forensic Lab, this could be addressed, and an innocent person would not have to suffer in vain. A study by Johnson et al. explains "rape cases with forensic evidence had an overall 81.4 percent conviction rate".

6. Witness Protection Services Established

The Sierra Leone Police has been unable to operate its Witness Protection scheme. The issue of the alleged murder of the witness in Hannah Bockarie's case is one such example that shows the need for Witness Protection.

Among my other suggestions include:

7. A team for SGBV cases in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to advice on case files with the utmost speed.

8. A special court for SGBV cases to enhance speedy trials.

9. Constant outreach to communities through the Local Policing Partnership Boards on breaking the culture of silence in reporting and being a witness for cases.

10.Boys and men must also be engaged on SGBV. For too long, activities have focused on educating only girls and women. Now, we must re-strategise. Let's "catch them while they are young" and involve men and boys to speak out on and be advocates for change.

11.We must fight as one. We must stop working in silos and come together as one in this fight. We have failed because we have been a disjointed force. With one voice, our impact would be immense, and we would ultimately get our desired goal.

12.Encourage whistleblowers on SGBV in schools and communities to speak up. A Whistleblower is a person who exposes secretive activity that is deemed illegal, unethical or wrong. Having sex with a girl is wrong. Compromising a case is wrong. A whistleblower could report these instances with their identity protected. There is an overwhelming need for such in Sierra Leone, especially with the increase in abuses against girls in our communities

13.Naming and shaming convicted persons to further serve as deterrence to others, using the Sex Offenders' Register as prescribed by the Child Rights Act of 2007.

14.Enforce the ID checking of all citizens and ensure night clubs, guest houses and hotels etc. do not allow under 18 in their premises.

With these 14 key points implemented, I believe that Sierra Leone will start on the road to recovery.

Editor's note: Mrs Mira Dumbuya is the Head, Operational Policy & Planning Department, Sierra Leone Police

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