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A Nation's Tense Debate Over How To Fight Rape

Nicole Xu for NPR

The young girl walks so fast that the sleeves of her sparkly black dress and untucked portions of her blue headscarf billow behind her. As she makes her way to the front of the High Court of Kono, an eastern district of Sierra Leone, she passes the defendant's stand but is careful not to look at the person in the dock. (Neither person's name is being used in this story to protect their privacy and the privacy of their families.)

The girl takes a seat on a wooden chair in front of the judge. The state prosecutor asks whether she is Christian or Muslim.

"Muslim," she says.

He then asks whether her imam has taught her the difference between a truth and a lie. She says he has.

"And what happens if you lie?" he asks, leaning over his table.

"You go to hellfire," she answers, swinging her feet.

Even though the defendant stands just 8 feet away from her, she keeps dodging his eyes. That's because he's the man the 7-year-old says raped her. He's about 20 years her senior.

The prosecutor stands up, satisfied with her answer. "OK, my Lord. She's sworn in."

The prosecutor had to find a way to swear in a witness this young, since 7-year-olds don't often testify in court. And just a few months ago, a case like hers may not have been heard, let alone taken seriously by judges or lawyers.

An emergency is declared

That started to change in February, when Sierra Leone's president, Julius Maada Bio, declared rape and sexual violence a national emergency after a series of high-profile rapes of young girls. He promised speedier trials and new arms of the police and judicial system to address sexual offenses.

To emphasize the severity of the crime of sexual assault, he also said that anyone found guilty of having sex with a minor — under 18, the age of consent — would be sentenced to life in prison.

Fatmata Sorie, president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS), thinks the president's announcement "emboldened people to speak out."

"It's brought public attention to these issues," she says.

But in June, less than six months after his initial announcement, Bio quietly informed activists that he was ending the national emergency. He offered no public statement or explanation. And because no money had been earmarked during the short-lived emergency, substantial promises were left unfulfilled — such as free hospital care for rape survivors and a national phone hotline for survivors to report cases and seek advice.

"This is a really big missed opportunity," says Chernor Bah, executive director of Purposeful Productions, an advocacy organization focused on adolescent girls. "The last time the country declared a national emergency was for Ebola. It was taken seriously, as it should be. It means you direct resources, time and energy to deal with the problem."

Daniel Kettor, executive director of the Rainbo Center, the only organization in the country providing free medical care to sexual assault survivors, isn't quite as pessimistic. Like Sorie from LAWYERS, he believes that there has been a significant change in the willingness to report cases of sexual assault in Sierra Leone.

"We've seen a lot of people come out," he says. "They're reporting where they used to just stay quiet."

The Rainbo Center is considered to have the most reliable data on the number of sexual assault cases in the country. Even the president's office uses those figures.

The number of cases recorded from January through April 2019 was 1,051 — the highest ever for a four-month period and nearly double the 600 reported over the same span in 2018.

And according to the country's police service, there were more than 8,500 reported case of sexual- and gender-based violence in 2018 — and a third of these involved a minor. But many activists, and the country's first lady, say the number of actual cases is likely much higher, as many instances go unreported.

What's changed?

Kettor also says there have been changes in the way the justice system handles sexual assault. The police and judges are giving priority to cases like the 7-year-old's. As a result, rape cases are taking just months to process instead of years.

There are plans to make police investigations and trials even faster. A new Sexual Offenses Division of the High Court was established by the judiciary this past spring. It's meant to hear all sexual assault cases going forward. The goal is to speed up prosecution by bypassing lower courts and offering a more sensitive environment with specially-trained judges. There are also plans for a new sexual assault police unit, which will focus on cases involving sex in which adults are suspected of having sex with minors. The aim is to conduct investigations quickly.

But Bah calls these "underwhelming superficial changes." Even though judges have been informed of the new division, no cases have yet been assigned. And although the police announced the formation of the new unit, the officers assigned to it maintain their old duties and haven't been retrained for the new post.

With the emergency now lifted and no funds earmarked, activists are now questioning whether — and when — promises like government-sponsored psychosocial support and health care will be realized. Within the government, the focus on sexual assault cases has swung from big initiatives to small changes that can be made by parliament. The body is currently considering a new version of the 2011 Sexual Offenses Act, which, if passed, would make Bio's call for a life sentence for anyone who has sex with someone under 18 a formal part of the country's law.

That could be a problematic law in a country where, according to U.N. data analyzed by Save the Children, which works in Sierra Leone, 13% of the country's girls are married by age 15, and 39% by age 18.

Given this context, LAWYERS is not convinced that the president's suggested life sentence for statutory rape would be effective. "We want the number of incidents to come down, and this could have the opposite effect," says Sorie. "We don't want a situation where people are hesitant to report, where both a victim and witnesses would be worried about coming forward because the sentence is too harsh."

In addition, it's difficult to determine a defendant's guilt because, as Kettor notes, there's currently no way to do DNA testing of semen in the country—something he has pushed for for years.

Mary Allieu, who oversees the Rainbo Center's Kono office, says that without DNA testing, it's possible that some men have been wrongfully charged. But she thinks that wrongful charges are an exception, given what she calls "intense pressure not to talk about rape. To speak out, you have to be very brave."

These legal reforms also don't address social and economic realities that may drive sex between younger girls and older men.

"A lot of girls get involved in relationships with older men to fund their education, or their parents will agree to their girls being married off at younger ages because of financial circumstances," says Nicky Coker, vice president of LAWYERS. "We've heard stories of girls who live far away from school, and they have sex with motorbike riders who offer their daily lift to school and maybe Le2,000 ($.20) for lunch, too."

The National Strategy for the Reduction of Adolescent Pregnancyhighlights that girls in poor, rural areas are much more likely to marry early than those in relatively wealthy urban centers. Across the country, 30% of pregnant girls surveyed for the strategy said their partner was about 10 years older than them.

Rainbo's Allieu says that many of the cases she has seen involve people who know each other — the alleged rapist may be a neighbor or family member. "With a sentence like that, survivors will be pressured not to tell. Someone will say, 'Do you really want your uncle to go to jail? Your neighbor?' "

Bah adds that in a country with a reputation for corruption within the judicial system, the law may not be enacted equally. "If you're a poor person [accused of rape], you're much more likely to go to court. Those who have lawyers, their cases are almost always thrown out," he says.

There's also concern that the president's brief emergency declaration has left an impression that only the rape of very young girls should be taken seriously, neglecting a broader focus on sexual assault and harassment of people of all ages. When Bio declared the national emergency, he focused on the 2018 case of a 5-year-old who was raped by her uncle. That crime had prompted the president's call for a life sentence.

As a result of the president's stance, several men accused of having sex with girls under age 10 and tried in the Kono High Court were additionally charged with attempted murder, based on the argument that such an act was tantamount to cutting the victim's life short and could kill a child.

The conversation about rape in Sierra Leone is "being focused only on the extreme cases," Bah says. "To talk about the 2-year-old girl who was raped in the anus, that's important," but he believes there should be a broader discussion of how men often have sex with teenagers who are under 18. The Rainbo Center says that every year, it sees approximately 2,000 rape victims, who mostly fall between the ages of 11 to 15.

During the week and a half I spent in the court in Kono, I observed four rape cases, two involving young girls under age 10 and two involving teenagers. While the Kono judge was deferential to the younger girls, he probed the testimony of older girls.

For example, one 16-year-old was told by the judge that she must give details of her assault. By law, the only physical proof required for a guilty verdict is evidence of penetration. In addition, when the girl told the judge that the perpetrator "moved up and down" on top of her, he himself moved up and down in his seat and laughed. That same girl was later asked by the defense attorney whether she had had sex before the alleged assault.

New attitudes

The public discussions about rape have also brought more attention to the way powerful men behave toward women.

At a U.N.-sponsored conference in June, Alpha Timbo, the education minister, reportedly said, "Sometimes women are to blame. They provoke the men to rape them" — a comment that sparked immediate backlash.

He later went on national television and apologized for the use of the word provoke, noting it angered the "vast majority of people. There is nothing to ... justify rape."

Activists are motivated to push for more sweeping changes. Coker, of LAWYERS, joined a new group, Femme Collective, that "wants to look not just at laws, but also at attitudes," she says. The group is setting up a series of public events to talk about cultural and social norms toward women and to "bring men into the conversation and then have them go back into their own communities and talk to their peers. These statistics about abuse and assaults against women and girls, those aren't just for women to care about." Coker says she wants the government "not just to focus on enforcement aspect but to try to get to the root causes of why this is happening."

Bah says, "This is not just on this government. This a societal issue. We have to deconstruct the way sex is understood, and who has the power within sex, in the country."

Some activists remain optimistic. A few weeks after the 7-year-old's testimony at the High Court in Kono, a guilty verdict was handed down — one of 30 guilty verdicts in rape cases across the country from January to May, compared with 53 in all of 2018.

"Things are starting to change," says Kettor. There's a lot of work ahead, he says, as he continues to call for funds to support DNA testing and free government hospital care for rape survivors. But he's glad that "people now know this should be taken seriously."

Reporting for this article was supported by UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center Fellowship.

Mara Kardas-Nelson is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, Calif. She lived in Sierra Leone from 2015-2017 and goes back regularly to report. Her work has been featured in The Nation, Al Jazeera and elsewhere. You can read some of her stories at

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Mara Kardas-Nelson
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