Sexual violence, an 'invisible war crime'

Sierra Leone Truth Commission condemns abuse, discrimination
From Africa Renewal: 
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Photo: ©Panos/Caroline Penn

In 1991, at the very beginning of Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war, a 19-year-old woman crossed paths with a group of 10 rebels, led by the notorious commander "Mosquito," just outside the town of Telu Bongor. "Mosquito was the first person who raped me," she later recounted. "Then he ordered his men to continue the act. Nine other men continued to rape me. . . . After misusing me to their satisfaction, the rebels left me alone in a very hopeless condition. . . . Even now the pain is still in me, which is creating problems in my marital home, because my husband drives me from my home and says that I am barren."

Her ordeal -- both during and after the war -- echoes the stories of hundreds of other women and girls who testified or submitted statements to Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Created out of Sierra Leone's peace process, the commission was mandated to establish an impartial record of the abuses that occurred in the war, as a step towards achieving national reconciliation.

Early in their efforts, however, commission investigators found that gathering information specifically about sexual violence was not easy. In Sierra Leone, as in many other countries, women and girls confront social taboos against speaking publicly about rape and other sexual violence. They are stigmatized in their own communities when they admit they have been sexually abused.

To help break through such barriers, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) intervened with advice, training and other support for TRC staff and especially for the women themselves. UNIFEM's work before and during the evidence-gathering process, in collaboration with local civil society organizations, played an important role in making it possible for so many women to break their silence and for the commission's final report to place such a strong spotlight on the horrific crimes perpetrated against women.

As a result, the TRC hearings helped bring to light Sierra Leone's "invisible war crime," as Ms. Binaifer Nowrojee of the Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations termed the problem in her own testimony. The Kenyan women's rights advocate worked closely with UNIFEM in highlighting the issue in Sierra Leone, as she had in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

A weapon of war

The Sierra Leone civil war was known internationally for its horrific atrocities -- especially the widespread amputations of villagers' limbs. But until recently, little attention was devoted to abuses directed specifically against women. "Violence against women was not just incidental to the conflict," Ms. Nowrojee told Africa Renewal, "but was routinely used as a tool of war. Sexual violence was used in a widespread and systematic way as a weapon, and women were raped in extraordinarily brutal ways."

The commission's 1,500-page report, released in October, provides an excruciatingly thorough and detailed account of the atrocities carried out in the war, which officially ended in January 2002. Out of the 10,002 adult victims the commission was able to identify, 33.5 per cent were female. Among the 1,427 child victims, that proportion rose to 44.9 per cent.

All armed groups carried out human rights violations against women and girls, the TRC report finds. These included killing, rape and other sexual violence, sexual slavery, slave labour, abduction, assault, amputation, forced pregnancy, disembowelment of pregnant women, torture, trafficking, mutilation, theft and the destruction of property. While forced conscription was used mainly -- but not solely -- against males, rape and sexual slavery were committed almost exclusively against females.

Because rape and sexual violence were so rife during the war, the country is now seeing a sharp rise in cases of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, the report notes. According to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), of the 170,000 people between the ages of 15 and 49 estimated to be living with the virus in Sierra Leone in 2001, some 90,000 were female.

The largest number of atrocities was committed by fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel movement that started the war. The RUF "was the primary perpetrator of human rights violations against women and girls," the commission reports, and "pursued a deliberate strategy of violating women." More than 66 per cent of the 2,058 abductions of women and girls were carried out by the RUF, as well as 73 per cent of the reported cases of sexual slavery.

The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council -- an army faction that seized power in 1997 and was ousted the following year -- also deliberately targeted women and girls, the TRC reports. The official Sierra Leone Army and an irregular pro-government militia group, the Civil Defence Forces, employed similar tactics, although on a less-widespread scale.

Some women joined the rebel forces, but many were abducted and then forced to carry out armed actions. Both women combatants and other female abductees were forced to take drugs -- many remain addicted today. The TRC finds that "many women suffer a double victimization, in that they were compelled against their will to join the armed forces, and today they are victimized by society for having played a combative role in the conflict. They are treated with hostility and suspicion for 'breaching' both gender and sex roles." These women were largely excluded from the disarmament and reintegration programmes of Sierra Leone's peace process, which favoured men and boys.

Women who were raped also confront marginalization. Because of the social stigma that is still widely attached to rape, many have been shunned by their own husbands, families and communities -- or obliged to remain silent to avoid being ostracized.

UNIFEM support

Overcoming such hurdles posed a challenge to officials of the TRC, many of whom were men. The commission's mandate included looking specifically at crimes against women, but its personnel admitted at the outset that they had little knowledge or experience of eliciting testimony from women or conducting interviews with a gender perspective in mind. "Because UNIFEM's mandate was so close to what the TRC was expected to do," explains Ms. Florence Butegwa, regional programme director for UNIFEM in Anglophone West Africa, "we made a commitment that we would support building their own capacity, and offer them support throughout the process."

UNIFEM and the Nairobi-based Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights conducted a training workshop on gender-based human rights violations at the time of the hearings in 2003. The workshop focused on the impact of armed conflict on women and children, promoting gender sensitivity in handling female victims' testimonies and building the skills necessary to deal with victims and witnesses.

According to Ms. Betty Murungi of the Urgent Action Fund, "From our early experience with the Arusha tribunal [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda], it became quite clear that if these issues of sexual abuse that happen during wartime and internal conflict were left to the devices of officials . . . matters that relate to crimes committed against women are often ignored, mischaracterized, or just completely under-investigated."

Sometimes traditional power relations threatened to impede the collection of information. "One commissioner said he went to a community where he was leading a team of recorders that were collecting testimonies. The women did not come out, only the men came," Ms. Butegwa told Africa Renewal. "When they were asked why, the men said 'We can speak for the women'."

"It was clear that it was difficult for women to come forward and speak publicly," Ms. Nowrojee says. As a result, "some of the women opted to speak behind a screen, some opted to give testimony in private." Ultimately, hundreds of women around the country testified or gave statements to the commission's investigators.

Ms. Murungi summarized the general attitude of the women who testified: "We want to break the silence. We want to say what happened to us. We want to understand why it happened. We need somebody to acknowledge that these things happened to us, to reclaim our dignity, so that this doesn't happen again."

Addressing 'structural inequality'

Also hoping to avert similar crimes in the future, the commission recommends numerous measures to help those women who suffered directly from the war, as well as to enhance the status of women more generally.

For women affected by the war, the TRC "calls on communities to make special efforts to encourage acceptance of the survivors of rape and sexual violence as they reintegrate into society." It recommends that the Ministry of Social Welfare and Gender Affairs establish a directory of donors and service providers where women can obtain information and help. The government should provide free psychological support and reproductive health services to these women, while relief agencies should aid women ex-combatants with skills training and other assistance to advance their social reintegration.

The commission urges reforms in Sierra Leone's legal, judicial and police systems to make it easier for women to report cases of sexual and domestic violence. It calls for the repeal of all statutory and customary laws that discriminate against women, including in marriage, inheritance, divorce and property ownership. It recommends that the government campaign against the customary practice whereby a victim of rape is obliged to marry the rapist.

Besides expressing its gratitude for UNIFEM's role in helping women testify, the TRC also recommends that the UN agency participate in a variety of efforts to improve women's social status, including skills training, adult education, HIV/AIDS education, the abolition of harmful customary practices and leadership programmes.

The commission notes that the government "has not yet taken the necessary steps to eradicate structural inequality against women." It urges the president, on behalf of the current and past governments, to "offer an unequivocal apology" to women for their suffering during the war. To enhance women's role in decision-making, the TRC recommends that political parties ensure that at least 30 per cent of their candidates for public office are women, and that the government work towards achieving a similar ratio in cabinet and other political posts. The government and parliament should both aim to reach gender parity within the next decade.

A new Sierra Leone

The section on recommendations relating to women opens with an extract from an essay submitted to the commission by Ms. Chinsia Caesar: "I hope to see a Sierra Leone offering equal opportunities to boys and girls from the cradle to the grave. . . . In particular, I want to see a country where girls are not left out, but are encouraged to reach the highest peak of their potential."