SIERRA LEONE: Women, Targets in Sierra Leone's Decade of Hell, Now Face a Different Kind of Civil War

Saturday, January 12, 2013
Washington Post
Western Africa
Sierra Leone
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Tears stream down Fatmata's face as she shuffles into the police station courtyard, alone and doubled over in pain after being held down and beaten with a stick.

She is 26 and says it's not her first battering. This time, though, she is pressing criminal charges against her husband and his girlfriend.

Sitting on a bench and waiting for an officer to take her statement, she wipes her nose and clutches her side. “I am in terrible pain,” she says.

Domestic violence is a problem all over West Africa, not least in Sierra Leone, a nation of 6 million that became synonymous with “blood diamonds,” sexual violence and hacked-off limbs in the civil war that ended in 2002.

Today Sierra Leone can take pride in having an elected government and a five-year-old law criminalizing domestic violence. It has more than 40 police units dedicated to resolving family cases including domestic violence.

“If you won't help her, who will?” says a billboard that shows a man about to club a terrified woman while another man tries to restrain him.

But what the country lacks, despite its wealth in diamonds, gold, titanium and bauxite, is the money to enforce the law. Nearly two thirds of its people live on less than $1.25 a day, and fewer than a quarter of Sierra Leone women can read and write.

Leaving a violent relationship can be hard for women in any country, but in Sierra Leone it's almost impossible.

A woman who refuses to have sex with her husband can be summoned to appear before traditional leaders for a reprimand. Even in death, a husband still has control. His widow can be forced to marry his brother or lose her home, land and children.

A man can take up with another woman and the mother of his children will be left with no legal recourse.

Violence toward women was rampant in the lawless 1990s. “Even before the war things were difficult, but the war made things worse,” says Juliana Konteh, the evangelist missionary who founded the Women in Crisis Movement to care for those raped and displaced in the civil war.

Konteh's is one of the few organizations that operate safe houses for battered women in Sierra Leone. “Whether you are an ex-combatant or not,” ‘'she says, “everyone is going through trauma.”

In 2012 police investigated just over 4,000 cases of suspected domestic violence, and close to 800 people were charged.

But the figures don't tell the whole story. Authorities acknowledge that convictions are rare. The International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based nonprofit that works to prevent violence against women, says in a report: “A shortage of personnel at all levels leads to delays and case withdrawals, in part from the strong family pressure to settle out of court.”

The 2007 law sets a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a fine of 5 million leone (about $1,200). But neither helps the victim much if it puts a family breadwinner in prison while the fine drains away housekeeping money.

And the police also lack basics. One officer interviewing a victim had to stop and go out to buy a pen. Another station lacked a camera for photographing injuries.