RAPE OF ADOLESCENT GIRLS: A HIDDEN PANDEMIC IN COVID19 ERA SIERRA LEONE!
“Hello Fatima! I just wanted to inform you that another one of your DIAMONDS Girls in Tuba Village has been raped.” Those were the piercing words of the last of four such messages I received between June and September 2020, just before I traveled to Sierra Leone last month.
Our organization, Girls Leadership Empowerment And Development for Change (Girls LEAD Change), has a primary mission of motivating girls in disadvantaged communities build resiliency to combat negative social trends, such as teenage pregnancy and school dropout.
In 2018, toward achieving this mission in Sierra Leone, Girls LEAD Change enrolled 50 adolescent girls into our flagship DIAMONDS Girls Circle program, from Bo Town and 6 remote villages (Majihun, Nyandeyama, Manorwoh, Sembehun 17 New Town, Old Town and Tuba) in Tikonkoh Chiefdom.
In the past couple of years since their enrollment into the program, we have engaged in various activities to keep the DIAMONDS Girls motivated and encouraged to stay in school. We have helped many of them with school supplies, uniforms and other school-related expenses. In Tuba Village, which is close to 3 other villages (Manorwoh, Sembehun New Town and Old Town), we have established a library and hired a schoolteacher, who moonlights as a tutor in the library, for the girls and some boys, after school and on weekends. Periodically, we connect by WhatsApp video call to share motivational messages with the girls and to hear their concerns.
Through this means of communication with the teacher and the girls, we have learned about the issues of rape of girls, pregnancies and early marriages of girls ranging in age from 12 to 16. One 15-year-old girl, who is motivated to stay in school, was sent by her parents to Freetown to live with a man who “intended to marry her.” But this DIAMONDS Girl knew better, as a MOTIVATED girl (the M in DIAMONDS), she ran away from the man and returned to the village, where she reported the matter to our library teacher. This was a demonstration of her taking the INITIATIVE she has been taught in the program (the I in DIAMONDS) for self-advocacy and protection. We intervened in her case, pleaded with and encouraged her mother to refrain from marrying her off so soon; to allow her to continue school. So far, she continues school, but still very much vulnerable to rape and early marriage.
For the four rapes that have been reported to us so far, we have collaborated and partnered with the two main nonprofit organizations in Sierra Leone, the Rainbo Center and Commit and Act, as well as the police department that deals with adolescent rapes. These nonprofit organizations and the police are committed to fighting rape, and the staff members are passionate about combating the rape pandemic among adolescent girls in Sierra Leone.
However, enormous challenges abound in their efforts to combat the problem.To begin with, the police are severely lacking in resources to effectively pursue the high number of adolescent rape cases. For each case we reported to the police, we had to provide transportation for the victim and family members to make the trip to the police station and provide necessary statements. We also have had to provide transportation for the investigators to go to the crime scenes in the village to collect evidence.
On a brighter side of things, upon giving her statement to the police, a victim is usually referred by the police to the Rainbo Initiative's Rainbo Center, which is a non-profit organization located at the government hospital. Rainbo Center offers free medical services to rape victims. Upon parental request, a victim is also referred to Commit and Act, another non-profit that provides free safe shelter and counselling for the victim, while the police investigate the case. But victims can only stay at the shelter for two weeks, due to lack of space and the high number of victims.
Now, you must be wondering, ‘what about the rapists?’ Short answer: ‘most of them are on the run!’ Yes, of the four rapists we have reported to the police, only one is in custody. With the resource constraints faced by the police, other stakeholders are needed to help capture the rapists and keep them in custody. However, from my discussions with the village residents and observation of their reactions, I am convinced that the rapists are being protected, aided and abetted by people in their communities.
For instance, after consultations with the Chief and other stakeholders in the village, I offered to pay transportation for a 16-year-old pregnant girl and her mother, to go and provide statements to the police regarding her rape, which resulted in pregnancy. The young lady became very defensive of her rapist and refused to make the trip. Her rapist is also on the run and I suspect she and the family know his whereabouts.
As an incentive, I offered to pay Le1,000,000 (one million Leone, which amounts to $100 U.S. Dollars) to anyone who can help the police capture any of the absconded rapists. To my amazement, I got no takers for my offer. In fact, both older folks and the youth were all laughing at my suggestion, that they would be willing to help bring into police custody, one of their brothers, uncles and relative.
This is the root of this rape pandemic in Sierra Leone! Adolescent girls are not being rampantly raped and impregnated by perfect strangers. The girls are being raped by members of their communities, right under the noses of their own parents, custodians and community leaders. The only rapist who is currently in custody is the brother-in-law and custodian of the girl he raped; he is the husband of the victim’s elder sister with whom the victim lives. This rapist has apparently been helping himself sexually to both his wife and her little sister in the house. He was caught raping the girl in an abandoned house in the middle of the village, by a second rapist who had also been sexually exploiting the same girl. The disgruntled 2nd rapist revealed the incident to a 3rd party and left the village, knowing he would be sought by the police. He is still on the run.
The rapist brother-in-law was caught and is currently in police custody. But the victim has been sent away from the village to an unknown place, probably by the sister to protect her husband. This means that the victim will not be available to provide needed witness statements to the police and the court, which will likely result in the release of the rapist for lack of evidence. With such a habitual rapist released back into the community, the raping of more girls shall continue!
Therefore, the raping of adolescent girls in Sierra Leone is far from ending or even abating soon. The sexual penetration of girls under the age of 18 is a crime, contrary to the Sexual Offences Act of 2012. Unfortunately, the larger Sierra Leone society does not appear to see men’s sexual involvement with under-aged girls as legally and morally wrong, nor as a problem that must be stopped. Whenever you mention the issue of girls’ sexual involvement with men, the general response in Sierra Leone is that the girls are willing parties to the relationships, for material or other reasons.
There are definite signs of child prostitution in plain view around the country. For instance, in Koidu Town where I grew up, I was saddened to see girls as young as 12 years old, in scanty outfits and high heels, walking the streets late in the evenings, around Opera, a popular entertainment section of town. When I looked toward the wide glass windows of the upper garret of the old cinema building, I could see very young girls gyrating to the latest music with young as well as older men.
Yes, the girls are very much willing participants in many rape cases, but that neither makes it less of a crime nor warrant us to do nothing about it. The Sierra Leone society’s continued blind eye to the raping of adolescent girls, makes this fermenting hidden pandemic a serious peril for the development of Sierra Leone as a nation.
The bottom line is that women are more than 50% of Sierra Leone’s population. We must, therefore, end rape of adolescent girls, to allow them to properly develop into educated, high skilled, self-sufficient human capital, who can contribute to nation-building. Otherwise, Sierra Leone is going nowhere soon on the development scale!