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Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone: The war in the minds of the men

January 24, 2022

By Marnel Breure – Freetown

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the official end of the civil war in Sierra Leone. As the war continued in the minds of the men, sexual violence is still epidemic. Activists (m/f) are making a case for a change in mentality.

Alicia Kamara was held in a Revolutionary United Front (RUF) camp for one month and seventeen days. She remembers it very precisely; because she counted every day she had to spend there. At the time, Kamara was about thirty years old and mother of four children. “There was a big room where I was locked up naked with other women,” she recalls. “The rebels abused us as it pleased them. I was raped several times every day. By several men.”

The RUF rebels, led by Foday Sankoh, are the instigators of the civil war that gripped Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. The purpose of the struggle, supported from neighboring Liberia by insurgent leader Charles Taylor, was the overthrow of the incumbent government in Freetown. In their pursuit of power, the rebels indulged in extreme acts of terror against the civilian population. Sexual violence – in addition to amputating limbs of adults and children – was used as a structural and strategic weapon of war.

Women and girls were kidnapped and abused in attacks on villages or captured during bush raids, as happened to Alicia Kamara. Multiple rapes, penetration with sticks or stabbing weapons, sexual slavery and forced “marriages” with RUF fighters were part of the daily routine. According to an estimate in Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) report, released shortly after the declaration of peace, 215,000 to 257,000 women and girls have been the target of sexual warfare violence.

In January 2002, after a difficult process of demobilization, the civil war was officially brought to an end, but sexual violence against women is still epidemic in Sierra Leone. If systematic rape is intended to undermine the equilibrium in a society, then the RUF has won the war on this point.
“The cultural values ​​that protect women have been destroyed by the civil war,” says Manaff Kemokai. As director of Defense for Children in Sierra Leone, he makes efforts to increase girl power and considers sexual violence a number one priority. “Before the war, someone wouldn't think of touching a girl,” Kemokai explains. “That would bring bad luck to the community, for virginity had a profound meaning. Just like marriage. Those traditional views also have drawbacks, but the problem is that the war brutally disrupted them. By brandishing a gun, you could suddenly sleep with any woman.”
Add the fact that men in Sierra Leone have traditionally been in charge and that misogynist porn has gained influence with the rise of the Internet, and a fairly toxic climate with regard to women and sexuality is created. That toxic climate regularly leads to sexual violence crimes of an excessive nature.
When a five-year-old girl was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of an anal rape by an uncle in 2018, a storm of outrage erupted across the country that was not without consequences. In February 2019, President Julius Maada Bio declared a state of emergency regarding sexual violence. The maximum prison sentence for raping a minor was immediately increased from 15 years to life. A few months earlier, first lady Fatima Maada Bio had already launched her public campaign Hands Off Our Girls, aimed at making it clear once and for all that any form of violence against girls is intolerable.
Three years later, the Hands Off billboards are fading by the roadside and the presidential couple's popularity is declining. Fatima Maada Bio is said to have funneled government funds into her campaign for purposes that have little or nothing to do with the fight against sexual abuse. The Presidential Task Force on Sexual Violence, established by Julius Maada Bio during the state of emergency, has collapsed after a brisk start. According to Manaff Kemokai, himself a member, the task force hasn't met in months.
Government initiatives may have come to a standstill, but in society there is a growing awareness that sexual violence is a serious matter. This awareness is sometimes expressed with unexpected fervor. In the Beauty Bar, a trendy beauty parlor in the more affluent part of Freetown, students from the Vine Memorial Secondary School for girls have set up a small but telling exhibition entitled 'What Was She Wearing?'. Victims' testimonials have been made visible using garments that reflect the core of their experiences. A coat hanger with nappy pants refers to the story of a woman who was raped as a one-year-old baby; a long black robe depicts the experience of a girl who, in vain, decided to dress in Islamic attire to keep a pushy cousin at bay.
A panel discussion is organized following the opening reception. After the first introductory questions, the beauty salon turns into a safe space where people talk candidly about everything that has to do with involuntary sex. The assembled company, many young women and a few men, is unmistakably part of a social vanguard. Because despite the spirit of change, ignoring and keeping silent in mainstream Sierra Leone still determines how to deal with sexual violence.
This silence translates into a minimal willingness to report rape and sexual assault. More than 1,000 reports of sexual violence have been filed every year since the state of emergency was declared. The tip of the iceberg, but according to Manaff Kemokai this is a high number compared to the period before 2019. The fact that no more than 30 to 35 percent of the reported cases are subsequently brought to trial is also in line with an upward trend. Kemokai: “I wouldn't call it an improvement, but let's just say it's a good sign.”
When it comes to breaking the culture of silence, Naasu Fofanah is a prominent trailblazer. “Rape is normalized and perpetuated by pointing the finger at the victims,” says Fofanah: “Sexual violence is seen as the result of one's own shortcomings. As a result, women avoid to talk about their experiences. I am one of the first in Sierra Leone to do that.”
Naasu Fofanah was raped when she was 15 by the pastor of the Methodist church she was an active member of: “Clergymen are seen as exalted figures, so I really looked up to that man. He abused not only my body but also my trust in him. I didn't understand what happened. There was only pain. He was a very big man. I have always found sex problematic. And big men too.”
Fofanah is an activist of the tireless kind. On a random Saturday morning in December, she slaloms in her chauffeured tuk-tuk through the maddening traffic of Freetown to join a demonstrative march against sexual violence. The action is set up by Rainbo Initiative, a Sierra Leonean organization that has been providing aid to survivors of sexual violence since the end of the civil war. Busy ringing one of her three phones, Fofanah tries to find out where the procession is. Once found, she walks a bit with the demonstrators, exchanges information with other activists and then jumps back into the tuk-tuk: a meeting with vulnerable girls from a school for the blind is next on the program and then she has to go straight to a classy work dinner with young highly educated women.
The abuse by the pastor continued until Naasu Fofanah became pregnant and her mother found out. A merciless beating and – less common – an illegal abortion followed. Then she kept her mouth shut for 31 years.
“In 2016, something in me was triggered,” Fofanah says looking back. “I had been campaigning for women's rights and legal abortion for years at the time, but disregarded my own experiences. At one point, my draft for a Safe Abortion Bill had passed parliament twice. But president Ernest Bai Koroma, the then president, refused to sign it because he was pressured by the Inter Religious Council. The clergy had moral objections! Given my own experiences with a cleric, I couldn't bear that. I made my story public and have continued to do so ever since.” Driven: “The blame and shame surrounding sexual violence should be borne by the perpetrators.”
Pidia Joseph Allieu, creator and founder of the Husband School, has made it his life's work to change the mentality of men. “You can empower girls and women, but if men are the perpetrators, the change has to come from them in the first place,” he states.
The Husband School, as the name suggests, aims to teach men to be better husbands. With the help of dialogues, discussions and role-plays that have to 'disarm' them, they are gradually being prepared for a non-violent marriage.
Pidia Joseph Allieu has been active for ten years in the countryside around his hometown of Kenema, in eastern Sierra Leone. In the village of Panguma, about twenty-five men sit on wooden benches under a construction of piles and corrugated iron. Pidia has positioned himself in the middle of the circle and starts off energetically: “God created man in his own image and so he is meant to behave accordingly.”
The villagers – a mixed group of Muslims and Christians – respond in agreement, whereupon Pidia raises the key question: “How come men beat and abuse their wives? According to law, that isn’t even allowed!”
As far as Pidia is concerned, there is an explicit connection between domestic and sexual violence and the past years of terror. “The war must be taken out of the minds of the men,” he explains. “The violence that was prevalent in this area has remained in their way of thinking. Women are the victims of that mindset.”
John Philip, a former Husband School student, openly admits that he used to have a "lousy mentality". His wife Abibatu says she was regularly molested and abused. Today, John is aware that he needs to vent his stress and frustrations in a different way.
For Alicia Kamara, now in her early fifties, change is coming too late. After she managed to escape from the RUF rebel camp, she turned out to be pregnant, she says on the porch of her modest house. Her husband didn't want her to come back. Alicia continues to struggle with bleeding and other gynecological problems. Partly because of these problems, she did not remarry: "My greatest happiness is that the son born of the rapes is accepted as a brother by my other children."
Alicia Kamara's name has been changed. 
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