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Forensic laboratory the missing link to ensure justice for sexual assault victims

February 21, 2020

By Yusufu S. Bangura

Sexual violence against children is a gross violation of children’s rights; which can take the form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape or sexual exploitation.

According to the newly amended Sexual Offences Act – which was officially updated on the 19th of September 2019 – an adult, over the age of 18, who is found guilty of engaging in an act of rape with another person will be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison, or up to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, a person under the age of 18 who is found guilty of rape will be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison, or up to a maximum of life imprisonment.

The Rainbo Initiative is a national Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Sierra Leone, established in 2003 to provide free, quality and confidential health care services to survivors of gender-based violence across the country. Alison French is the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator for Rainbo Initiative.

“Last year from January to December,” Alison explains, “we were able to record over 3,701 sexual assault cases and 196 physical assault cases, which gives a total of 3,897 sexual gender-based violence cases that we saw from our five different centres across the country.”

She said that 98% of the sexual offense cases recorded in 2019 involved children under the age of 18 years, which is particularly worrisome.

Alison said that, compared to 2018 when they treated 2,900 cases of sexual assault, the number of cases reported to their centres has grown considerably – an increase which led their organisation to expand their services to two new districts, Makeni and Bo, whereas before they were only having three centres.

At the centres, Alison explains that they do not have any advanced medical equipment for treating or providing tests for survivors of sexual gender-based violence – even in the whole country, she adds, there is not a forensic laboratory for testing samples including DNA, which can be used to identify and convict perpetrators. Given this lack of forensic testing ability, Alison says that they must rely on more basic physical tests conducted with the survivors by medical personnel. However, she says that the Rainbo Initiative is able to provide free medical and psycho-social counselling for the survivors who come to them.

Madam French continued that, depending on funding, they also provide food, clothing, hygiene items, and other necessary things for the survivors, if they are needed.

According to its ‘New Direction’ campaign manifesto, released by the Sierra Leone People’s Party in 2018, the now-ruling party promises to: “Strengthen knowledge of the referral pathway of sexual abuse; Increase the capacity of the FSU, the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary to investigate and prosecute reported cases and punish the perpetrators without any exception, including by not accepting any out-of-court settlements in such cases; [and] Strengthen protection, rehabilitation and reintegration support for victims of sexual abuse.”

Defence for Children International in Sierra Leone (DCI-SL) is another independent non-governmental organization working to promote and protect the rights of children in the country. Issa Bangura serves as Advocacy and Communications Officer for DCI-SL. According to him, the organization provides direct socio-legal support including legal education, counselling and legal representation for victims of sexual abuse, adding that DCI-SL also works to strengthen the quality and efficiency of justice in Sierra Leone, and protect the human rights of victims while going through the justice system, to ensure the victims get justice.

“We are supporting in the enforcement of judicial decisions,” Issa explains, “and facilitating for victims and survivors to get justice, and improve procedural safeguards in judicial proceedings. We are strengthening the independence and accountability of the judiciary, enhancing the capacities of the penitentiary system, and supporting the implementation and reporting on the [national] Action Plan on Prevention of Abuse, Exploitation and Violence Against Children in Sierra Leone.”

Issa said DCI-SL also supports victims and survivors with psychological intervention which helps them to recover from the consequences of abuse that are often long-lasting and difficult to deal with, as well as any potential psychological effects that may develop later in life.

He maintained that the role of the organization is to monitor and document cases of sexual violence, as in 2019 they monitored over 500 cases that were in conflict with the law. But, he says, during these processes they encounter a lot of challenges including ensuring survivors’ access to free medical treatments for sexual violence, and carrying out legal and policy interventions to respond to the needs of victims of abuse, as well as the needs of other vulnerable children in communities.

Director of Gender and Family Support Unit (FSU) at the Sierra Leone Police, AIG Mustapha Kamara says the FSU department deals with sexual offense cases that are reported to the police by various people, and after investigation they send the file to the Attorney General’s Office and the Minister of Justice, who review the cases directly.

He noted that they have done several trainings for their staff on sexual violence against children to make sure that they handle those issues with respect.

He said the FSU recorded over 3000 cases in 2019, but admits they are aware that many times, cases are compromised when families negotiate outside of court with the accused person, even after they have made an official report, which causes further problems for dealing with such cases. Once a case is compromised, he says, it becomes more difficult for the survivor to get justice.

“I am happy with the new Sexual Offenses Act, which is the 2019 Act,” he says, “because there is now a whole provision for those who settle [out of court] with sexual assault matters, and the penalty awarded in the event that [a case is compromised is that] he or she pays a fine of 10 million Leones or gets up to one year imprisonment. So that will help deter perpetrators of committing those offenses.”

 He said the Sierra Leone police are law enforcers, so if anyone goes against the law, they have the mandate to enforce it.

“We are there to make sure that offenders are brought to justice,” he says, “but all by ourselves we cannot do it, except we work with community stakeholders, and also with medical doctors, because they [help to] certify that yes, the allegations made by the victim is correct.”

Similar to the statement from Alison French of the Rainbo Initiative, AIG Kamara also underscored the importance of the country needing a forensic laboratory, to improve their ability to successfully document and prosecute cases involving sexual assault in the country.