February 16, 2021
By Yusufu S. Bangura & Alhaji Haruna Sani
It was 3pm when Lucinda was explaining her ordeal on a blooming Wednesday afternoon, with the sun shining from a clear sky in her veranda in Saama village, Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. With her three month baby wrapped in yellow and blue cotton with nipple of her breast in the baby’s mouth , Lucinda appears skinny, rough and malnourished, but with round eyes, thick long eyebrows, straight nose, small mouth and pink lips, and her smile clearly exposes her dimples – of course she is beautiful and charming.
‘’I am in total bitterness and regret and I am quite certain that my dreams of becoming a banker will never be fulfilled. My life has been ruined, and I strongly blame my parents and Alpha for it. I am only fourteen and now a mother ‘’ explained sobbing Lucinda Kamara to this medium.
“I was in JSS one when he proposed love to me but I turned him down, not knowing I will soon be mothering his child. I informed my mother about the issue, but she told me that Alpha had promised to marry me even before I was born, and unfortunately fate decided. She also claimed that before my birth he had been strongly supporting the family with both financial and manual labour on the farm.’’
She continued after a long pause, “after receiving series of gifts from Alpha, he one day invited me to his place, and I had no choice but to go because my parents had approved the relationship. At his place, I was nervous and timid, but he gave me a drink that made me unconscious. When I regain consciousness, I saw him with a drenched cloth in blood and I realized sharp pain in-between my legs.Suddenly, I began to cry but he placed some money in my hands and told me to stop crying and that the pain will soon be over,” she explained her pain.
“After few months, I noticed some early signs of pregnancy and my mother took me to a health centre where it was confirmed that I was two months pregnant hence I moved to stay with Alpha as his third wife”.
Many other teenagers have had similar or worse experience than Lucinda.
SGBV, teenage pregnancy and early marriage have been affecting women and girls in Sierra Leone and to the extent threaten to throw a heavy knock on the country’s economy, education and health system.
The Family Support Unit (FSU) is a division of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP) that among other things, investigates all SGBV reported cases. Detective Inspector Alfred Bob Sellu is the FSU Database Manager at the headquarters of the Criminal Investigations in Freetown.
He told this medium that 6355 cases of SGBV were reported just in 2 years (2019 and 2020 respectively).
He said 2019 recorded more sexual penetration cases of about 3,268 but the number dropped to 3,087 in 2020.
He said Freetown East recorded 829 which are the highest number of cases in 2020, and recorded 104 cases in 2019. He added that among the 12 months in 2020, June recorded the highest number of sexual penetration cases.
He said they have prosecuted so many cases of sexual penetration in court and secured conviction for most.
Realizing the magnitude of the issue, successive governments and civil rights groups have been making significant strides geared towards adequately addressing issues relating to sexual & gender based violence (SGBV), teenage pregnancy and early marriage in Sierra Leone.
During the previous All People’s Congress (APC) regime, laws against SGBV, teenage pregnancy and early marriage were instituted but these laws proved less stringent measure to tackle the menace. But two years after, the Bio-led administration promised some hopes of reducing the menace by reviewing existing laws on SGBV, teenage pregnancy and early marriage in order to institute those new laws.
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 even up to a maximum of life imprisonment.
Despite all effort by successive government to curb the menace, the issue still remains unbeatable
In 2019,Sierra Leoneans witnessed an ugly scene when pressure mounted, and citizen took to the streets over reports of an alleged sexual penetration case involving a 5-year-old girl, who was allegedly abused by his uncle and in the process sustained injuries that left her paralyzed.
In response to the ugly incident, President Bio on 7th February, 2019 officially declared a national emergency on rape and sexual violence as major step towards addressing rape and all forms of sexual violence in Sierra Leone. “With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” Bio passionately announced.
Just few months after Bio’s declaration of state of emergency against SGBV, 5 years old Kadiaja Madinatu Saccoh was also allegedly sexually penetrated and murdered by her siblings and the matter is still in High Court for arbitration.
While the issue remain thorny in the country, the police are also challenged in investigating and possibly charging perpetuators to court.
The Database Manager at CID said they are facing too many challenges in investigating and prosecuting sexual related cases. He cited delay by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) office, explaining that after investigating such cases they sent files to the DPP for advice, but it takes too long for him to advise, which, in most cases, creates room for the suspect and sureties to escape when granted bail.
He also cited the absence of forensic laboratory as another challenge in investigating sexual crimes.
Rainbo Initiative is a local non-governmental organization that operates in five major districts in Sierra Leone including the country’s capital (Freetown). Its vision is to envisage a Sierra Leone that is free from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence with a mission to respond and prevent SGBV in Sierra Leone.
Data released by the organisation revealed that 10,582 SGBV cases were recorded in just 3 years with 3,584 in 2020. Releasing the data to pressmen on February 5th at their Smart Farm office in Freetown, Gibril Kargbo of Rainbo Initiative disclosed to journalists that the youngest sexual assault survivor reported for the year 2020 was a three month old baby with the oldest being a 100 years old woman.
He further stated that ten HIV positive cases were recorded from test conducted on survivors between January to December 2020, with 505 pregnancies cases.
Kargbo expressed disappointment over the soaring figures presented, stating that despite several measures to end sexual exploitation, there are however several cases going unreported with survivors suffering stigma, discrimination and worst still loss of life.
He added that there are perverted relatives within certain families and also neighbours in communities who are paedophiles, but families and communities are doing very little to identify such individuals and at the same time identify early warning signs of child sexual abuse. He concluded that the data represent only five districts where they operate out of the 16 districts of Sierra Leone.
Similar to the statement from Detective Inspector, Sellu of the FSU, Kargbo also underscored the importance of a forensic laboratory to improve their ability to successfully document and prosecute cases involving sexual assault in the country.
Sexual and Gender-based violence is a physical or psychological form of inhumane treatment against women in general and it can cause serious health problem with a profound short or long-term impact on physical and mental health, such as an increased risk of sexual and reproductive health problems, an increased risk of suicide or HIV infection.
Issues of violence against women in general and offences of sexual nature against same in particular have become extremely topical and have also provided the foundation for many debates or arguments revolving around the laws protecting women, especially those requiring review or obliteration.
Child marriage and teenage pregnancy on the other hand reduces the likelihood that girls will complete their secondary schooling and thus further their education; this finding emerged from the questions asked in household surveys conducted by Demographics and Health Survey.
Early marriage is one of the many reasons adolescent girls drop out of school. Deprived from learning, there is less assurance for these girls to return to school. The effect of such can be life threaten, with marriages characterized by matrimonial violence, brutality, teenage pregnancy, maternal morbidity and infant mortality.
Teenage pregnancy is a driver of child marriage in Sierra Leone. According to the 2019 Demographic and Health Surveys, women are first married by exact age 15 was 12.5%. 28% of girls and young women aged 15–19 have their first child or are pregnant and 22% have had sex with men at least ten years older than them.
Recently, a story was published in the A-Z Newspaper, involving a 13-year-old girl who was forced into marriage by her parents and at the time the interview was conducted she was eight month pregnant. Sad and dishearten cases of such nature occur every day. Girls below the age of 18years are forced into marriage by either parent or guardian and the reasons for this could be likely attributed to poverty, culture, religion, illiteracy or probably ignorance.
Sierra Leone remains one of the world’s most dangerous places in which to bear children, with an estimated 1,033 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
With ravaging pace of SGBV, teenage pregnancy and early marriage in the country, it is imperative on the Bio Administration to consolidate more actions to design policies and develop a national strategy and which will harmonize and standardize laws to combat child marriage, provide protection, rehabilitation and reintegration support for victims of child marriage. Make school attendance for children legally compulsory and penalize parents/guardians who wilfully flout the law.
SGBV is characterized by rape, as degrading and inhumane as it is, especially when considering the physical and psychological effects of SGBV, the upsurge of such should be a call for stakeholders to come on board to ensure that such is by all possible means put to an end.