On Violence Against Women 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 are women so badly treated? I was worried that I would 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 and rape were not considered abuse neither were they crimes worth prosecuting. Men/boys had little or no regard for women and girls. What baffled me the most growing up was that families would rather keep the whole rape or battering saga a secret ignoring or ignorant of the psychological and physical effects on the victims.
A six year old girl, who lived with one of my mother’s friends, was allegedly raped by a security guard. The alleged rapist was in his 40s. The penalty the man paid for the crime was some money to the guardian of the child to seek medical help. Absolutely no prosecution was made-that is if there was a need to make one.
The alleged rapist was a man well known 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. Rape victims were caught up in an everyday mockery and taunting by people in the community.
It was also common for men to take advantage of vulnerable young girls and women, sleep with them, impregnate them and sometimes deny ownership of the pregnancy. Girls were sexually abused and exploited for something as cheap as a loaf of bread and butter. In other circumstances, families easily give away their daughters to rich men who would constantly abuse these girls, preventing them from attaining education and other forms of development they would aspire for. All this boils down to poverty.
The majority of the women population in the rural areas of the country still do not have control over the number of children they should have- when to have kids or whether at all it is necessary to have kids is a solely male decision and for which women get severe punishment in the form of beatings if they dare attempt any family planning procedure or if the men notice their wives are secretly using birth control pills. Most husbands prefer to share the little salary they earn with their girlfriends rather than their families.
In the past, it was common for husbands to bring their girlfriends home to meet their wives knowing very well that the other woman was having an affair with their husband. I know a few families wherein husbands left their wives and stayed with girlfriends whom they felt were of a better class and status than their wives. Occasionally, some of these girlfriends would send gifts to the poor wives and kids who would accept the gifts with smiles on their faces. Polygamy was also a widespread phenomenon among both Christian and Muslim families. That was in the 80s, before Sierra Leone had the conflict. 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 experiences for us who grew up during the war was unlike most. As children, we witnessed amputations, saw women and girls raped, abducted, forcefully married or murdered in front of their families.
The war has ended but the status of women has remained unchanged. Rape and wife battering are still widespread phenomena 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. Later that same year, a Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology allegedly raped a University student who had gone to seek help from him for a scholarship opportunity to further her studies abroad. Although the Minister was relieved of his position, the matter is still dragging its feet in court.
Almost every family in Sierra Leone has experienced rape or wife battering. My ten year-old niece was last year raped by a taxi driver. The matter was reported at the Lumley police station in Freetown. To my family’s dismay the police officers in charge of the matter demanded some money in order to pursue the alleged rapist- who was on the run. When a family is faced with such matters, they need a firm political link to have the case pursue; in the absence of it the victim is left on her own. Until this day my niece’s alleged rapist has not been caught by the police because her parents refused to bribe for justice.
Growing up, I remembered an aunt had come to report her soldier husband who had beaten her to my father. My Aunt’s eyes were swollen. There were marks from beatings on her back, feet and bruises on her arms and face. My father got really angry and asked her not to return to the husband. Aunty was worried about her kids-all four of them were below the age of 14. She couldn’t stay and let her children suffer without her, so she decided to return to her wife beater husband. A week later, aunty was severely beaten again by her husband, this time she had sustained internal injuries and bleeding. She eventually died of it.
Sierra Leone had no laws to deal with such matters then and aunty’s husband had a greater political influence that my family did not have so he went scot-free. Equality is having the freedom to say no to a rapist, equality is the ability to stand up to abuse, the competence to challenge the norms of society that put women on the backburner of important societal issues, equality means justice for both the poor and the rich, equality is justice devoid of political affiliation, equality is the power to stand against wife battering and other domestic violence that destroys women and most times kill them physically and/or psychologically.
Equality cannot be achieved if only 9.5% of adult women have reached secondary or tertiary education levels in the country - compared to 20% of their male counterparts. Equality is unattainable as long as the men have the free will to abuse women without any effective mechanism in place to put a stop to it. Sierra Leone has a gender inequality index of 0.662; with only 13% of members of parliament being female; while the agitation for the 30% quota for women wishing to go into politics is still far from being achieved.
While rape and wife battering are prevalent in Sierra Leone and sometimes rape victims are as young as six month old babies, it is apparent that everybody knows who the paedophiles, rapists, wife beaters and abusive guys are. But no solid action is being taken to clamp down on these nefarious acts of abuse. As children, 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 warned us.
The emotional and psychological torture married women in Sierra Leone go through lead to some running mad, others die and a few walk away but there are lots of them who stay and endure for the sake of their children like my aunty.
How can we put an end to wife battering and rape? The strategies may involve a lot. It includes an education campaign. The more educated women we have in the country the better the chances to end the abuse of women. Access to and attainment of educational qualifications is necessary if more women are to become agents of change. Literacy of women is vital in improving health, nutrition and education in the family and to empowering women to participate in decision-making in society.
There’s also a dire need to educate the men. Men whose mindsets are still formed by the idea that women should be only visible need encouragement to embrace the new platform women are taking in the modern world. Young boys should also be taught the culture of respect for girls-this could help them be the responsible adults they wish to be.
Law enforcement agencies like the police and the judiciary need adequate training to deal with issues of abuse. Even with the establishment of the family support units in the police, the success results have been appalling so far. These agencies need more training and empowerment.
Battered women and rape victims need counselling to get them off the emotional and psychological effects of the abuse. Finally, it is these women who make the foundation of the society, destroying them mean destroying society.