The ongoing trial of Sierra Leone’s former Deputy Education Minister Mahmoud Tarawally on rape charges has made headlines and highlighted the prevalence of sexual violence in the country. More than 6,500 incidents of domestic- and gender-based violence were reported in Sierra Leone in the first eight months of 2013, almost as many as in the whole of 2012.
Authorities say the upward trend is likely due to more people deciding to report cases of sexual abuse. Tarawally, who has since been sacked, was charged after a report was filed by the alleged victim, a 24-year-old university student. Although it is unclear how many cases go unreported, many in Sierra Leone agree that the country faces a serious problem with gender-based violence.
Charles Vandi, director of gender affairs at the Ministry of Social Welfare, said the high level of sexual violence has its roots in Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. “Women and girls were used as sex slaves,” he told IRIN. “They were tortured, they were abused.
“The social structures broke down during the civil war - the respect for human life, the respect for rule of law... We thought that the end of the war was going to arrest some of those negative social vices, but actually it’s continuing,” he explained.
Barriers to justice
Impunity surrounding gender-based crimes is a major contributing factor. Of the 6,591 reported cases of domestic or gender-based violence so far this year, a mere six percent resulted in a conviction, according to police statistics.
Vandi pointed to difficulty enforcing the sexual offences law enacted in 2012 and the domestic violence legislation passed earlier. The Family Support Unit (FSU), a police body tasked with investigating sexual crimes, is poorly funded and inadequately staffed. It is also undermined by frequent staff rotation; no sooner do officers get training to deal with gender-related violence than they are posted to other divisions.
Superintendent Mabel Fallah, the FSU chief, also decried a lack of cooperation by victims and witnesses. Many people cannot afford to pay for the frequent transport required to pursue legal proceedings, and so they skip court cases - which may be adjourned anyway, as lawyers, victims, witnesses and judges are not always available, Fallah said.
“Sometimes people have to travel 25 miles to get to the nearest courthouse, the nearest FSU,” said Ibrahim Tommy of the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law. “And it costs money. At least US$2-3, and that is a fortune for many families in rural communities.”
Sierra Leone’s court system is hugely overstretched. Some provinces do not even have a resident magistrate. There are too few lawyers, as well, particularly in the rural provinces. As a result, according to Vandi, victims are occasionally represented in court by policemen who have no legal training.
Faced with the option of pursuing lengthy and expensive court cases, many victims prefer to strike a deal with the accused, said Tommy.
He also explained that cultural issues compound the problem, particularly in rural areas where traditional patriarchal power structures remain strong. Close-knit extended family groups and local chiefs frequently dissuade victims from pursuing justice, preferring instead to settle the matter within the community.
The few women who do come forward may face open hostility in court and are stigmatized afterwards. Tarawally’s case highlights why many victims of sexual violence prefer to remain silent.
“In the premises of the chief justice of Sierra Leone, we had an alleged rape victim testify in the full view of the public. Invectives were hurled at her. Her mother, who was in the courtroom, was booed,” said Tommy, recounting Tarawally’s trial. “At one point, she sat with her head buried in her hands for a long period. That is not going to encourage anyone to come forward and cooperate.”
The witness and victim protection clauses under the Sexual Offences Act have yet to be implemented. The student allegedly raped by Deputy Minister Tarawally reportedly gave evidence in open court and was later forced to seek shelter with an NGO. And despite the legislation banning the media from naming victims of gender-based violence, several prominent newspapers identified her.
In 2011, the government, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), launched a new initiative to address some of the obstacles to accountability. Some courts now extend their working week to include Saturdays, when they hear only gender-related cases. The aim of the Saturday sessions is to clear a backlog of around 700 such cases.
Additionally, the police are better trained in the standard operating procedures for dealing with gender-based crimes: sexual and gender-based violence issues are now part of the training for all police recruits. Community-based organizations are being supported in their efforts to encourage victims to seek justice through the courts.
Rakel Larsen, a legal officer at UNDP, said the initiatives have led to more people reporting cases, better FSU's investigations and more convictions. Of the Saturday court cases that are referred to the high court, 70 percent now end in convictions, Larsen said.
While still low, the 399 people convicted for sexual and domestic crimes in Sierra Leone during the first eight months of this year is an improvement over 2012, when just 152 people were found guilty. There is no quick-fix for changing deeply engrained attitude towards women and sexual violence, but progress is being made.