ICT and the quest to end Gender-based violence in Sierra Leone
I grew up in a society wherein women are allowed to be seen not heard. It was the case in every corner of Sierra Leone. I grew up asking myself, what’s wrong with our society? Why women are so badly treated? I was worried that I will grow up only to be treated the same way as all the women I knew. The country’s decade old conflict only deepened my pessimism about the future.
Before the war, what was considered the normal was the most glaring abnormal one could experience. Growing up at a Police barracks in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I realized wife battering was not considered an abuse neither was it a crime. Men/boys had little or no regard for women and girls.
Rape was and still is a widespread phenomenon in Sierra Leone. In May 2013, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs recorded over 100 rape cases mostly of girls under the age of 14 while later in the year a deputy Minister allegedly raped a University student; the Minister was relieved off his duty but the matter is still dragging its feet in court.
What baffled me the most growing up was that families would rather keep the whole rape saga a secret ignoring or ignorant of the psychological and physical effects on these girls. I remember a girl of six, who lived with one of my mother’s friends, was raped by a security guard who was over 40 years old and the penalty the man paid for the crime was to give the guardian of the child some monies to seek medical help. This girl and many other rape victims were caught up in an everyday mockery and taunting by people in the community. The alleged rapist was a man well renowned for his cruel acts; there were reports that he deflowered his daughters and he was not the only one doing this evil act. Other guys in our community did it too and they had the common parable, ‘I cannot cook a soup and allow another man to be the first to taste it.’ No one thought these men were destroying young girls. Sadly, everybody knew who the paedophiles, rapists and abusive guys in the community were but no action was taken. Our parents warned us not to go close to them or to walk alone on the streets or the fields especially in the evening or at night. ‘If Mr X calls you don’t go near him, if he gives you money don’t take it,’ they would warned us. However, no one prosecuted; in fact such matters were not priorities for the police.
The war only worsened the pain of the average Sierra Leonean woman. The fear of being raped by a group of armed men was far greater than the fear of death. Rape victims are usually ostracized, abandoned and left to deal with their trauma. Childhood experience for us who grew up during the war was unlike most. As children we witnessed amputations, saw women raped or murdered in front of their families.
However, with these gruesome experiences of some of the very horrific things women in my country were going through, I decided to study journalism. I wanted to speak out for them, make a case for them. Shout out loud until somebody hears and make the change. Sierra Leone is signatory to most of the conventions and treaties that has to deal with improving the status of women, but implementation has been very poor so far. Until recently, The country had no minimum age for a girl to be given hand in marriage. My work as a journalists in Sierra Leone also took me to the four corners of the country where I learnt that even with this minimum age, people were still giving their daughters away for as low a bride price as a bowl of monkey nuts. I visited the northern part of the country in 2008; I came into contact with many teenage girls who had been given to farmers as wives. Most of them had had kids and were living in a very deplorable state.
My work as a journalist also exposed me to a regular use of the internet. I became a big fan of it. I could not go a day without browsing the internet; searching for materials for my column then ‘Gender watch’. I was also introduced to gender link website where I learnt a lot by reading other similar stories. I began to read other women’s stories. This helped to shape mine, to sharpen my voice in speaking out for women. When I and other female journalists some six years ago formed Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL), I used the chance to encourage my colleagues to be using the internet more regularly. With the internet my views can reach the world. I can learn from other people’s stories and I can gain relevant materials, advice and recommendations which I can publish locally for our local women to learn from. On several occasions, I used time during our meetings to explain to colleagues the benefits of the internet in reaching out to people who could intervene on behalf of the suffering women in Sierra Leone. There are organizations out of the country that are always willing to help these women and if we as female journalists do not post their stories to the international public, people will not know about their plight or come to their aid. Thanks to World Pulse, today I have an even bigger online audience. I have been amazed by the responses I get and I have learnt a lot from reading stories from other women. One thing that is clear is as women no matter where we are we share the same stories.
About a year or two ago, I set up a Facebook group called ‘Stop Violence against Women and Girls’. This Group examines the issues within Violence against Women and Girls, discuss the problem and suggest adequate solutions. It is a forum for other women and well wishing men to add their voice in speaking out for the millions of women and girls who suffer various forms of violence on a daily basis. The group encourages members to post articles, commentaries, opinions and reports or make personal comments or posts that are related to Violence against Women and Girls. The group has 868 members. Without the internet, I would not have had such a space and been able to reach out to such an audience and from diverse backgrounds.
The internet is the light at the end of the tunnel for women’s empowerment. Personally, it has been an inspiration, because I have a forum to express myself, I feel pushed to always voice out my opinion. I believe many others currently lacking the opportunity I have would feel the same if they have similar opportunity. I also believe my voice speaks out for all the battered women some of whom will die never having such an opportunity. I believe in their graves they would be at peace knowing somebody out here is fighting their cause.
Albeit social media has become so popular in the world today, but in my little Sierra Leone, the number of women having access to the internet is still appallingly low. The reason is basically many cannot afford accessing the internet with its very high cost. Most are not computer literate and poverty which is pervasive makes internet use the least of their priorities. The use of mobile phones is highly monitored by male partners in Sierra Leone. Many believe the use of mobile phones is a means of women going astray or keeping illegitimate relationships. As a result some women prefer to go without and keep the peace in their marriage or relationship.
Even among female journalists, most rarely use the internet and this service is mostly available at work and because of the slow nature of the service backed by an interrupted power supply and the frustrations of using it, it is impossible for many. I know of colleagues who could go a whole month or even more without checking their emails or even access the internet. Among the few with Facebook accounts, a handful occasionally accesses it. As for Twitter, most do not have a twitter account. Only a few have whats’app installed on their mobile phones.
There are very few public Libraries in Sierra Leone. Community Libraries are not available. The two main Libraries are the Sierra Leone Library and the British Council Library, both in the capital Freetown and are always jam-packed with students from Colleges and Universities around the city. Most people have their first touch of a computer at College or University. The computer room at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone was very small and could only take up to 25 people at a time.
Information and communication technology affect our capacity to fully enjoy our human rights and fundamental freedoms. Sierra Leone probably has the weakest cyber security. There have been incidents of professional sabotage and identity theft. The safety of internet use is in question; most times people go to internet cafes and later realized their email accounts have been hacked. Women and girls are increasingly being harassed online especially through mobile phones. In Sierra Leone this comes in the form of whats’app harassing. Often times, one will notice that somebody one has never come into contact with has added one to their whats’app account and they will be sending some very unfriendly messages and sometimes pornographic pictures.
Such harassments only pave the way for more trouble for women in relationship/marriage. Gender based violence in our real life is being replicated online. There have been cases wherein intimate pictures and videos of young girls have been used to blackmail them. For such reasons, some people rather not use the internet. Thankfully, the internet is not only changing the way women and girls experience violence but also how they react to them.
Despite the poor internet and power service in Sierra Leone, I believe giving the women especially in rural communities the privilege of computer literacy could go a long way in empowering them. These women need support from other women. They need that supporting voice or hand that would let them know that they are not alone; there are other women who share their pains and who have gone through similar experience and have come out of it as champions of change. If they are computer literate, they would be able to use the World Wide Web and liaise with other women from other parts of the world to keep up their spirit and to learn how to respond to gender-based violence both in the real world and online. The women of Sierra Leone have suffered a lot, it is very necessary that they are able to use the internet and conquer gender based violence.
Having community Libraries with internet access could make it easy for women to access the internet and learn how to use it. The National Telecommunication Commission; the regulating body for all telecoms in the country must be empowered to deal with issues of cyber harassing and other cyber related abuses. The government should also develop a cyber security bill that will help prevent cyber harassment and bullying against young girls and women. The country should also sign the African Union Convention on cyber security. In addition institutions like the police and the judiciary should be given the necessary training to handle such matters professionally and on time. Justice delayed is justice denied; cases of such nature must be granted the importance they deserve.
Finally, it is also necessary that laws regarding cyber security both for the service provider and the consumer is enshrined in the constitution; especially so as it is currently being reviewed. The world is moving and Sierra Leone is moving with it even though at a snail’s pace.