Sexual violence, teenage pregnancy on the increase in Sierra Leone

By Abdulrahman Koroma

A sixty-three-year-old man is currently on trial in Sierra Leone on allegation of sexual assault and rape against a thirteen year old girl in Freetown, the capital of the West African country.

Court officials in Freetown say Mohamed Samura, 63, faces sexual offense charges that violate Section 19 of Sierra Leone’s Sexual Offenses Act of 2012, a legislation enacted six years ago in response to the growing incidences of rape and other sexual offenses against women and girls in the country.

The alleged incident for which Samura is on trial occurred sometime in June 2018 when he sexually assaulted Mary Kamara, 13, (not her real name) at a residence in the Calaba Town community of east Freetown.

At a preliminary hearing in a packed court room on Thursday, Mary narrated the gruesome incident to a crowd gathered at a special sexual offenses court in Freetown to witness the proceedings.  

 “He tied my hands and feet with a rope and removed my pants, and then he forcefully inserted his penis into my vagina, and kept on forcing himself into me as I kept screaming. He refused to stop even when blood oozed out of me,” she told the shocked audience at the preliminary hearing.

Mary said she later reported the incident to her mother who in turn filed a police report at the Calaba Town Police Station in east Freetown. A medical examination report presented by the police at the hearing shows that the thirteen year old girl was sexually assaulted and penetrated on the day the report was filed.

The case, presided over by Magistrate Abdul Sheriff, is before Freetown’s Magistrate Court No.7, a special court dedicated to cases of sexual assault and other similar offenses that violate the country’s Sexual Offenses Act of 2012.

Sierra Leone’s sexual offenses law criminalizes sexual intercourse with anyone below the age of 18, and prescribes a prison sentence of up to fifteen years on conviction. The law defines sexual penetration as “any act which causes the penetration to any extent of the vagina, anus, or mouth of a person by the penis or any other part of the body of another person, or by an object.”

The Sierra Leone Police Headquarters in Freetown 

Mary’s case follows another high profile rape story in 2014 in which a government minister was accused of raping a university student who had gone to his office to submit a scholarship application. The minister reportedly took her to an apartment a few kilometers outside of the city and allegedly attacked and raped her. The matter was reported to the police, and thereafter, a local newspaper published the student’s name, photo, and story on its front-page the following day. The minister’s supporters hounded the complainant, accusing her of lying against the minister. The victim reportedly faced two years of escalating scorn and abuse that forced her into the protection of a women’s shelter, unable to leave without a police escort. The trial lasted for two years and the minister was eventually acquitted and reappointed to another cabinet position. The harassment of the victim reportedly continued. Fearing for her life, she eventually fled to Turkey in 2015.

A few months after the minister’s rape case, seventeen-year old Hannah Bockarie, identified as a commercial sex worker, was also brutally raped and murdered at Lumley beach in west  Freetown on August 2015. The brutal murder sparked outrage among women’s groups in the country, leading to a protest vigil by human rights campaigners. Police later charged two suspects, one Mohamed Lamin and Paul Corn in connection with the murder. The trial is still ongoing at a Freetown high court.

Police records in Freetown indicate that cases of sexual violence and sexual harassment have been on the increase in Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war in 2001.

About a week ago, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) reported that Pujehun district in southern Sierra Leone recorded over one thousand one hundred and forty teenage pregnancies in recent months, one of the highest figures in the country lately. This alarming number is said to include six hundred girls who are all below the age of 18, and who risk dropping out of school due to teenage pregnancy.

Pujehun district faces one of the highest number of teenage pregnancies in recent years, resulting mostly from sexual assault and other rape-related offenses against girls. Activists say in many of the cases, perpetrators are never punished.

The Law Courts building in Freetown

Women activists in Sierra Leone have continuously complained that sexual offenses against women and girls are rising because most of the cases go unreported in Sierra Leone as victims do not have the opportunity to be heard in a court.

Most cases of sexual assault and rape usually get settled through, what police officers describe as, a community Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), a process of settlement outside of the country’s judicial process.  

“It involves negotiated financial agreement or settlement between the victims’ families and representatives of the alleged perpetrator, and mostly done behind closed doors to avoid the assumed stigma and supposed disgrace associated with being a victim of sexual assault,” one police officer said.

Head of the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police, Superintendent Fatmata Jebbeh Daboh says ADR settlements are illegal and they constitute criminal offenses punishable under Sierra Leone’s sexual offenses law.

 “It is a criminal offense for anyone to mediate an out of court settlement for sexually related offenses. It is against law,” she told the Africanist Press.

Superintendent Daboh said ADR settlements are hindering police investigations into allegations of sexual assault and harassment cases across the country.

“Sometimes complainants rely on community chiefs to adjudicate on such matters, and these community leaders who have no legal authority to preside on such matters often issue arbitrary verdicts, including exorbitant fines that chase alleged perpetrators into hiding and ultimately making it difficult for police officers to locate and apprehend such accused persons,” she explained.

In other cases, families of victims also hinder police investigations by refusing to serve as witnesses in sexual offense cases reported to the police.

In early July, for example, police arrested one Sheku Kamara for the alleged rape of a seven year old girl at Aberdeen in west Freetown. The victim’s family, who had reported the matter to the Aberdeen Police Station, discontinued the police proceedings in late July, and opted for an ADR settlement with the alleged perpetrator.

The police released Kamara on bail because they couldn’t proceed without the victim’s cooperation with the investigation. The victim’s family argued that the alleged perpetrator is supposedly an orphan on scholarship and faces the risk of losing his place of study  with the orphanage agency that was caring for him.

Superintendent Daboh explained that in instances where alleged perpetrators are landlords, tenant victims do not report cases of sexual assault for fear of eviction by landlords.

“Even other tenants who witness such crimes also fail to serve as witnesses against their landlords for fear of eviction,” she complained.

In other instances where police investigations were concluded, and cases are charged to court, victims usually refuse to appear in court to testify as witnesses against alleged perpetrators. Police officers have also complained that lack of witnesses have stalled sexual offense proceedings, and the cases often end up being discharged by magistrates and judges for prosecutors’ lack of witnesses.

Sierra Leone’s Criminal Procedures Act (CPA) allows a presiding magistrate or judge to discharge criminal cases in situations where complainants fail to appear on three consecutive hearings of the case.

Superintendent Daboh observed that most of the sexual offense cases that are usually reported to the police are those that complainants and alleged perpetrators fail to reach a negotiated community settlement or agreement.

United Methodist Women carry placards with inscriptions calling for an end to violence against females as they march through the main streets of Freetown on July 27.
Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS.

“When a compromise settlement is reached at the community level, and especially when money has been exchanged between the two parties, the police do not get to hear about these incidents,” she said.

Daboh suggested that a “one stop medical center for victims” is needed to help expedite matters of sexual assault and rape.  

“The Rainbo Center, which is currently  examining cases from 32 police stations in western area has only  doctor. This slows down proceedings because police can’t proceed with investigations without a certified medical report. It sometimes takes a week or two before medical reports are sent to us for action. This poses a big challenge and opens doors for compromise,” she said.

Section 39 of the Sexual Offenses Act grants free medical treatment to all victims of sexual violence at all government hospitals and medical centers across the country. Victims, however, complain that such medical services are usually inaccessible in most hospitals without payment of medical fees.

A forensic test for sexual assault and rape often costs three million Leones (about US$350) and most victims of sexual assault and rape come from poor families who cannot afford the medical bill.

Director of Gender Affairs in the Social Welfare Ministry in Freetown, Charles Vandy says authorities have been made aware of this problem. He disclosed that the ministry is currently working with other government institutions, including the Sierra Leone Police, to establish a forensic lab to deal with medical issues associated with sexual offenses.

The proposed forensic lab, he said, would carry out timely medical examinations on victims of sexual violence, and provide medical reports in a timely manner to assist police officers in their investigation and prosecution of cases of sexual assault and rape across the country.

But the huge medical bills, and the absence of a forensic lab to handle medical issues associated with sexual offense proceedings, are just a tiny part of the numerous challenges and difficulties facing sexual assault victims in Sierra Leone. Social workers say the most difficult aspect hinges on the stigma victims of sexual assault undergo in Sierra Leone in their effort to pursue justice.

A female lawyer representing alleged sexual assault perpetrators in Sierra Leone, Shirley Taylor of CWA & PARTNERS in Freetown acknowledges this fact when she notes the heart-wrenching testimonies of victims during court proceedings.

Part of the difficulties rests mostly with the victim’s ability to prove guilt since the burden of proof often rests with the accused in a criminal proceeding.

“It pains me as a woman listening to fellow women testifying with tears, and it really hurts knowing I am a woman,” she says, but she notes that her obligation is to defend her clients as a lawyer when she gets hired.

“In criminal proceedings like these, the complainants need to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that my clients are guilty as charged,” she explains.

Most medical reports presented as evidence in sexual offense proceedings only show that a victims suffered a ruptured hymen.

“Ruptured hymens can also be caused by rigorous physical activities including riding bicycles, and swimming,” she said, while underlining the difficulties prosecutors face in haven to rely on such medical reports to prove the guilt of alleged perpetrators in court.

The absence of forensic medical reports allows defense attorneys like Taylor to take advantage of this lacuna to free alleged perpetrators.

The difficulty in prosecuting sexual offenses is reflected in the many NGO reports on gender based violence in Sierra Leone in recent years. A recent report by Rainbo Center in Freetown reveals that of the 55% reported gender based violence cases in 2016 only 2% were successfully prosecuted.

Women at an anti-rape vigil in Freetown in August 2015

The report notes that of the 3138 sexual offense cases collated by Rainbo Center in mostly Freetown, Kono, and Kenema in 2016 and first quarter of 2017, an eleven year-old girl is listed as the youngest pregnancy recorded across the country, while a three-months old baby was listed as the youngest victim of sexual assault in the country. 

The center also recorded 461 teenage pregnancies in 2016 and 101 pregnancy in the first quarter of 2017; all resulting from numerous sexual offenses, including rape. 

This abysmal statistics is also corroborated by the Sierra Leone Police Annual Crime Statistics Reports between 2014 to 2017 which show a cumulative number of 9,153 sexual assault cases nationally.

Leading up to the presidential election campaigns in March 2018,  the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) candidate, Julius Maada Bio pledges to deal with, what he called, the rising lawlessness and indiscipline across the country.  The SLPP’s elections manifesto that Bio campaigned on offered to “increase budgetary resources for the implementation of the Sexual Offenses Act of 2012.” It calls for a strengthening of the capacity of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs, and other national NGOs to provide psychosocial services to all victims of sexual violence across the country.

The manifesto promised to strengthen knowledge of the referral pathway of sexual abuse and increase the capacity of the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police, the Ministry of Justice, and the judiciary to speedily investigate and prosecute reported cases, and getting rid of out-of-court settlements.

With almost five months in power, it is still a wait and see situation if the promised robust action against sexual violence will be actualized.

Abdulrahman Koroma is a journalist based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He writes on human rights, corruption, and injustice against women, children and girls.

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