By Francess Issa
In September 2019, the Parliament of Sierra Leone passed The Sexual Offences Amendment Act 2019, demonstrating its commitment to the fight against sexual violence. Although I wasn’t fortunate to physically witness this moment, I stayed abreast with developments through colleagues in parliament that day. The atmosphere was pregnant with suspense, compelling me to heartily hug my two daughters when I learned the bill had become law. This landmark bill ensures perpetrators of sexual violence will not go unpunished. This law will certainly help improve the plight of girls, women and parents.
Perhaps unpacking the climate within which this law was birthed may help highlight its significance. The Sexual Offences Act of 2012, for all its provisions, failed to deter perpetrators of sexual violence. Rainbo Initiative, a non-governmental entity that provides counselling and clinical care for survivors of sexual violence, notes that between 2013 to 2018, incidents of reported sexual violence increased from 1,824 to 2,900. In 2018 alone, the organisation accounts that 8,500 cases of sexual assault occurred! And about half of these victims were girls between 11-15 years old. These worrying trendlines prompted the government of Sierra Leone to declare rape a public emergency in February of this year. Yet even with that proclamation, rape incidents continued unabated. From June, July and August, 285, 298 and 302 cases were reported, respectively. I am inclined to think these unacceptably high numbers might be even higher if more families—undeterred by the social stigma—reported issues of sexual violence.
Decreasing incidents of sexual violence in Sierra Leone has been an uphill battle. Take, for example, a recent incident involving a 13-year-old girl. Gang-raped and brutally beaten by three men in Moyamba District in July 2019. The victim was found unconscious. She was transported to Connaught Hospital in Freetown for medical treatment. Her medical care included chest and cranial x-rays, confirming she had been physically battered. Preliminary hearings on the matter are currently at the Magistrate Court in Moyamba. All three alleged perpetrators were denied bail.
This unfortunate episode illustrates some of the challenges survivors of sexual violence face in Sierra Leone. The 13-year-old girl found it significantly challenging to access free, timely and adequate medical care. True, the Sexual Offences Act of 2012 does provide free medical treatment for victims of sexual violence. However, this typically doesn’t happen; victims end up paying for their medical care. In this particular case, delay in readily accessing medical treatment could have adversely affected the life of the 13-year-old victim. The delay could have even compromised critical evidence needed to prosecute the perpetrators successfully.
Another challenge in managing the welfare of victims is the lack of safe homes and witness support programs. The incident occurred in Moyamba, but the victim and the witnesses—both vulnerable parties—temporarily reside in Freetown. An organisation (name withheld to protect the victim and the witnesses) offered temporary accommodation. Still, there’s a need for a permanent safe home. In addition, victims and witnesses alike will need other forms of material assistance for their daily upkeep. In this low-resource society, travelling between Freetown and Moyamba for court hearings will impose an additional burden on the victim and the witnesses.
With this background, it is easy to appreciate laws that seek to reduce sexual violence. The government’s declaration of rape as a public emergency, coupled with commendable efforts from organisations such as LAWYERS, the Black Tuesday Movement, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Human Rights Commission Sierra Leone, helped midwife The Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019. The new law seeks to remedy issues the 2012 Sexual Offences Act did not address. In summary, the new law does the following:
Clarify the maximum sentence for rape offences.
The maximum penalty for rape has been increased from 15 years to life imprisonment.
The rape of a child (anyone under 18 years old) now automatically attracts a maximum penalty.
Impregnating victim(s) and infecting same with the venereal disease are now considered aggravated circumstances, attracting maximum punishment during sentencing.
Structures to aid the implementation of this law (approved schools, forensic labs, database of child offenders etc.) are now provided
Soliciting sex using threats by someone in authority is now punishable. This leaves zero tolerance for sexual exploitation.
Ambiguous legal language in the old law has been clarified, significantly shifting the burden of proof to the perpetrator.
With the new provisions, families and other interested persons can no longer disregard the due process of the law and settle rape and sexual assault cases as was done in the past. If they do, they will be committing an offence. Compromise in sexual assault cases has created considerable obstacles to the successful prosecution of offenders.
But this law, although important, is no panacea to the scourge of sexual violence. Court Rules must be established for the regulation of practices and procedures under the Act. The Courts Committee must make provisions for other related matters. Furthermore, for effective implementation of the Amendment Act, the public must understand the provisions of the law. This calls for massive public sensitisation by publishing abridged, explicit and adaptable education materials and tools. Enlisting the support of men and women alike will assure success in this effort. Work must also start on expanding access to safe homes. Access to free, timely and quality medical services must improve. Reducing sexual violence in Sierra Leone is a winnable battle. So let us forge on.
Francess Issa is a lawyer of 15 years standing in Sierra Leone. She holds an LLB Hon. Degree from the University of Sierra Leone and an LLM (International Human Rights Law) from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States. Ms Issa has worked on ‘access to justice and women’s rights issues in Sierra Leone and the United States.