What next in protecting our Women and Girls against Sexual Offences?
From International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25 until December 10 each year, women around the world mark 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. During this period, campaigns are waged globally to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls. Under the 2018 theme Orange the World: #HearMeToo, a host of events are being held to raise awareness and create opportunities for dialogue between activists, policy-makers and the public.
Like in previous years, Sierra Leone has actively participated in this campaign. This year was particularly poignant as the statistics from the media pointed to the fact that the crisis is getting worse. Rape and other sexual and gender-based violence had been a persistent problem long before the war. The war brought matters to fore. Since then there have been numerous attempts to address these terrible crimes.
Many had assumed that with the enactment of the three Gender Acts of 2007, Domestic Violence Act; Devolution of Estates Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, and the subsequent enactment of the Sexual Offences Act (2012), the culture of impunity would rapidly be brought to an end. Although still early days since these laws were passed, the problem seems to be worsening.
Data circulating on social media suggested that there were 2579 sexual penetration cases so far in 2018 – 6 were HIV positive and 484 pregnant. Rainbow Center data obtained from its website indicate that in October 2018 there were 237 cases of sexual assault, 49 pregnancies, 103 sexually transmitted infections and 1 HIV/AIDS case. Radio Democracy which actively reports these cases has left many listeners equally depressed and enraged. The age of the victims is getting younger. 45-year-old man penetrates a 9-year-old girl. 28-year-old man rapes 5-year-old girl. 35-year-old man penetrates 4-year-old girl. Astonishingly and sickeningly, the youngest rape case was a 7-month-old baby.
Clearly, despite the enactment of these progressive laws and years of sensitization, the dastardly act remains pervasive. However, this is not the time for disillusionment or giving up. It is a time to double our efforts and to think of new strategies to defeat the pedophiles and rapists.
The Sexual Offences Act has made it relatively easier to prosecute rape and other sexual offences but the conviction rate remains low due in part to shortcomings in our criminal justice system. We lack prosecutors in most parts of the country. Geographical factors make the formal legal system inaccessible. The capacity of investigators remains limited. They lack basic equipment such as rape kits to undertake important tests. Key witness including parents and guardians refuse to cooperate and in some cases receive money to ‘settle’ the case out of court. The absence of a witness protection programme also makes witnesses afraid to come forward. Legal technicalities such as corroboration and in some cases the requirement of a voire dire where a witness is a child are also major impediments in the prosecution of sexual offences.
The media has not always helped. Some have published pictures or information about victims leading to the disclosure of their identity. This coupled with the lack of confidentiality has helped ensure that the stigmatization surrounding rape and the culture of silence remain firmly in place. As immediate family members are usually the perpetrators, lack of adequate social workers and halfway houses has also deterred many witnesses from coming forward.
Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS) continues to do a great job associating with the prosecution in a number of sexual offence cases. The Bar Association can do more to work with them in this laudable effort. We can also work with the Legal Aid Board to train more paralegals who can help victims navigate the legal process especially in parts of the countries where there are no lawyers or in instances where people cannot afford lawyers.
However, not all the problems are legal and the courts, though they need to do a lot more, should not be the only frontier where this war is fought. It must be a comprehensive and multi-pronged battle. It must be waged at home by parents. The long taboo of not discussing sex must end. Sex education and preventive mechanisms must be part of our curriculum in schools.
As we realized with Ebola, our traditional leaders have a crucial role to play. It is important that we engage them at every level in this struggle. They should not only help raise awareness but must ensure that the local courts deal sternly with perpetrators. As recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the practice under customary law of compelling women and girls who have been raped to enter into marriage with the offender should be abolished.
Achieving justice for victims of sexual violence requires long-term commitment. It also requires political will and collaboration amongst all the actors. It is a comprehensive journey that we must all support government in ensuring it is eradicated.
Basita Michael is President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. It does not purport to reflect the position of any institution of which she is a member.