From Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown

Mar 15, 2010, 15:14







Let me first thank the organizers of this very important training/consultative workshop for according me this singular honour to deliver the keynote address.  I accept with humility and hope that I will live up to expectation.

Mr. Chairman, heads of UN agencies, workshop organizers, distinguished participants, sexual and gender based violence is as old as Methuselah in Sierra Leone and has helped in very large measure to fuel and sustain abuse of human rights over the years, in particular the rights of women and girls.

I therefore feel heartened by this initiative of the UNDP/BCPR Access to Justice Programme to bring this issue to the fore and to sensitise journalists about the continued pervasiveness of SGBV in our society and its effects on the victims.  It is my fervent hope that this training workshop will spur on our journalists to join the national efforts at responding to this menace in a very decisive and effective way.  Journalists are the eyes and ears of the nation.  This puts them in a vantage position to monitor and report on incidents of SGBV, cover SGBV cases and convictions and give them widespread publicity as a means of naming and shaming the perpetrators as a strategy for prevention.

This keynote address will dilate on the importance of reporting and publicizing incidents of SGBV, SGBV cases and convictions.  To put the workshop in context, it will attempt to define SGBV and give some examples of SGBV. It will throw light on the effects of SGBV on   victims. It will point to sources of information on SGVB as well as SGBV cases and touch on other issues pertinent to the Workshop theme.

But first, what is Sexual and Gender Based Violence?  I looked up several definitions on the internet and the one that appealed to me most was the one proffered by the UN High Commission for Refugees. It describes SGBV as a variety of abuses that includes the following:

- iolation of the rights of women and girls during armed conflict and displacement

- Domestic violence

- Incest

- Female genital mutilation

- Other harmful traditional practices including forced marriage and early marriage

- Rape on males, especially young boys

With this range of what SGVB encompasses, it is pertinent to examine each of them and their effects on victims, as this will spur us on to appreciate the importance of covering SGBV incidents, SGBV cases  and  convictions and give them wide publicity in the hope that this will serve as a deterrent.


The first scenario is Violation of the rights of women and girls during armed conflict and displacement.  This takes several forms including rape which is the most cited form of sexual abuse, forced conscription of women and girls into armed forces to take care of the domestic chores of the fighting forces and satisfy their sexual needs; and offer of increased rations and other favours during displacement in exchange for sex. In almost all situations of armed conflict and Internally displaced camps, from Rwanda to the DRC, Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone and even the recent religious conflict in Jos, Nigeria, the  situation has been the same.  Available records indicate that 750,000 women were raped during the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  In Sierra Leone, figures compiled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission disclosed that over 12,000 women and girls were victims of sexual violence and forced conscription during the ten year rebel war.  Available records indicate that an average of 40 women are raped every day in South Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo, where war has been raging for several years. In the recent riots in Jos, over 250 women are believed to have been raped. You will agree with me that these statistics are very startling. Exposure to such humiliating and degrading treatment leaves permanent physical and psychological scars on the victims, which might lead to loss of self-esteem, depression, nightmare, insanity, trauma and even death. The victims also stand the risk of having unwanted pregnancies and of contracting HIV AIDS and other sexual diseases.

Even in normal times, sexual abuse is highly prevalent in our society.  Figures available at the National Family Support Unit indicate that in 2009, the total number of cases on sexual abuse reported nation-wide was 927.  313 of these were charged to court; 460 are under investigation, 40 are being kept in view, while 112 cases have been resolved or withdrawn. 2 cases were thrown out for lack of evidence. There were no convictions.

Domestic violence is another form of SGBV. It includes wife battering, physical attacks in the home- wife against husband, husband against wife; attacks against the children by the parents or among the children themselves; sustained neglect and ill treatment of the wife by the husband, etc., etc.  These scenes could be humiliating, torturous, or even fatal. It could result in deformity of the victim caused by serious injuries which the victim will have to live with for the rest of his/her life. In 2009, the number of reported cases of domestic violence in the Family Support Unit nation-wide was 1,543. 291 of these were charged to court, 759 are still under investigation, 386 cases are being kept in view while 106 cases were resolved or withdrawn. 1 was thrown out for lack of evidence. There were no convictions.

Incest takes the form of sexual intercourse, normally involuntary, by a male relation with a female in the family. It could be the father, uncle, brother or a close male relation. In some countries, especially in Southern Africa where aids is taking its toll on the populace, there have been reports of male family members having sex with girls as young as 3 year old, 2 year old and even  6 and 9 months old babies. A Medicin Sans Frontier Report indicates that in neigbouring Liberia, a 21-month old child was raped.  With regard to babies and young children, it is generally believed that sex with young children is a cure for aids and venereal diseases.

Interestingly, incest per se is not an offence in Sierra Leone; it is not in the countrys statutes.  However, sexual intercourse with minors is an offence and is punishable by jail sentence and/or fine.

Female Genital Mutilation Discussion on FGM has often elicited mixed reactions in fora such as this one. However, considering the health hazards of FGM and the high rate of mortality among the initiates, which information is hardly brought to light since the ceremony is shrouded in secrecy, I believe that FGM merits attention in discussions on SGBV. It will also be good to put on the table for discussion other traditional practices such as early child marriage which has in principle been outlawed by the Gender Act, but which is still being practised with impunity.  Also forced marriage which is still very much a part of custom and tradition in Sierra Leone.  I believe that journalists should bring these issues to the fore and engage civil society including the traditionalists in meaningful discussion on these issues particularly on radio to bring about the desired change.

Other scenarios of SGBV which are often overlooked but which are pertinent to this discussion are attempted rape or rape by armed robbers on women when they break into the homes of helpless civilians. Also rape of young boys by men or of young boys by older boys. Although the latter is not pervasive, there have been reports of this nature, which if not unchecked will lead to widespread sodomy in our country. Despite the excuses being made in the western world in favour of sodomy, it is anathema to the Sierra Leonean culture and should not be encouraged.

I will now turn my attention to sources of SGBV incidents and of SGBV cases and conviction. From the scenarios discussed so far, it is true to say that Sexual and gender based violence shows up itself in our communities, neighbourhoods, homes, towns and villages almost daily.  Even before the matter gets to court (i.e if it does at all), as journalists, you should be watchful for such scenes and report on them with objectivity, accuracy and truthfulness, giving all sides of the story.   I notice that a few newspapers, in particular Premier News have taken the lead in reporting stories of this nature. Here are a few examples:

Military officer leads attack on Kukuna
- this story reports on the aftermath of one of the recent local council elections and vividly describes the attack which included rape of some women in the village by youth and armed men.

Secondary School boys in Rape Squad

My husband is messing my life

One SLPP Rape Victim still bleeding

Husband slaps wife to death

55 year old man rapes 13 year old girl

Is it possible to end SGBV in Sierra Leone?

Wife stabs husband to death

Wife cuts husbands penis

The prevalence of sexual harassment in Sierra Leone

These are just a few headlines I discovered while browsing the newspapers for articles on SGBV. Many a time, victims of rape, domestic violence, incest and other forms of SGBV suffer in silence to avoid stigma and ostracism by their boyfriends, husbands, families and even the society.  Reporting on such incidents professionally may attract police investigation or intervention by one or more of the NGOs involved in work on SGBV or even civil society, which might give the victim some consolation or even redress. It therefore behoves you as journalists to keep your ears to the ground and your eyes to the fore for scenes of SGBV which are so rampant in our environment.

With regard to court cases of SGBV and conviction, the sources that can be tapped for relevant and credible information include the following:

The family support unit in the area in which the incident occurred. There are a total of 40 family support units in the 60 Police Stations established throughout the country.

The Head of the Family Support Division of the Sierra Leone Police and her staff

The Public Relations Officer of the Sierra Leone Police and his Deputy

The Master and Registrar of the High Court ( if the matter is being tried in the High Court)

The Court Clerk (if the matter is being tried in a Magistrate Court)

The sitting Magistrate or Judge

The Director of Public Prosecution


      The Defense lawyer of the case being tried


In covering rape specific cases, a good source of information is the Rainbow Centre for victims of SGBV.  The centre which is based at Rawdon Street in Freetown has branches in the provinces.  The Rainbow centres are being supported by the International Rescue Committee (IRC). It is however useful to find out from the Family Support Unit at the relevant Police Station, the hospital or clinic to which the rape victim had been referred, as it is not always that rape victims are sent to the Rainbow Centre.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Childrens Affairs is another source of information on SGBV.  The Ministry houses the National Committee on Gender Based Violence (NacGBV) which is headed by the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Childrens Affairs as Chairman. The Co- Chair of NacGBV is the Assistant Inspector General of Police. There is in the Ministry a NacGBV Secretariat headed by Mr. Charles Vandy. The NacGBV Secretariat is on the ninth floor of Youyi Building at Brookfields.

It is also pertinent for journalists to understand that the current high profile of SGBV stems from the Resolution passed by the UN Security Council in 2000 to specifically call attention to the adverse effects of conflicts on women and girls including displacement as refugees and displaced persons. The Resolution, 1325, comprises 18 articles, but the most relevant of them to this discussion are Articles 11, 12 and 13. Article 11 emphasizes the responsibility of all states to put an end to impunity and to prosecute those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes including those relating to sexual violence and violence against women and girls. In this regard, it stresses the need to exclude these crimes, where feasible from amnesty provisions.

Article 12 calls on all parties to armed conflicts to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements and to take into account the particular needs of women and girls, including in their design, a way that helps prevent sexual violence. Also of relevance to this workshop is UN Security Council Resolution 1820 which buttresses Resolution 1325 and establishes mechanisms to investigate, monitor and report on violations of womens human rights including gender based violence and sexual abuse. It demands global reports on how State Parties of the United Nations have been implementing the recommendations in Resolution 1325 and 1820 with regard to SGBV.  I want to encourage you to read and understand these resolutions as you may need them to background your stories or to put your articles in context.    

As has been pointed out in several fora on SGBV, the range of interventions required to address sexual violence not only in conflict and post conflict situations, but also in our normal everyday activities demand a concerted approach that involves not only governments and the international community, but also civil society, men who are the major perpetrators and you the journalists.

I believe that the media can play its own part through regular and sustained coverage of SGBV.  The media should bring to the fore for public discourse various issues related to SGBV including harmful traditional practices that affect women and girls, domestic violence, sexual violence, sex work and trafficking, sexual harassment, sporadic internal conflicts in which rape is always used as a tool against parties to the conflict, girl child abuse and SGBV cases and convictions. If journalists can do all these things, they will be making substantial contribution towards stemming this menace from our society.


I thank you for your attention

Bernadette Cole

Chairperson, Independent Media Commission (IMC)

© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.