Social workers in Sierra Leone worry that rape has become even more pervasive in peacetime than during the country’s decade-long civil war. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which operates treatment clinics for abused women in Sierra Leone, has seen a steadily increasing stream of victims pouring into their “Rainbo Centers.” Most of the victims come from areas with a high concentration of former soldiers.
Although it has been nearly a decade since the war ended, some activists theorize that the widespread use of sexual violence as a weapon of war has resulted in rape being ingrained into the social conscience and even normalized. The head of the International Rescue Committee, Alan Glasgow, says that rape is now “something that is understood and even accepted.”
According to Amnesty International, the increase of sexual violence in post-conflict areas is not unique to Sierra Leone. It has also been documented in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Some of the perpetrators were children during the war and were exposed to rape and sexual violence then and just carried on doing it,” says Hannah Kargbo, a nurse for the IRC.
The IRC reports that there were 1,176 recorded attacks on women last year, but this number is likely only a fraction of the total number of incidences that occurred. Due to Sierra Leone’s increasing stigmatization of rape and a blame-the-victim mentality, few victims are willing to come forward. And the younger the victim, the stronger the fear of being stigmatized—a sobering fact considering that 65 percent of the IRC’s patients are under the age of fifteen.
The head of the Rainbo Centre in Freetown, Eunice Whenzle, says, “The young ones refuse to go back to school after the attack because they think other children will tease them about it. Some of the girls completely retract from society, refusing to eat or engage with anyone.”
In the case that victims do speak out about the crimes, they have to deal with an exceedingly slow legal system and administrative obstacles such as medical exams and certificates. In the end, many simply cannot afford to go through with the prosecution.
The unfortunate result is that the majority of rapists avoid punishment and often go on to claim more victims—even raping the same women and girls again. And of the 896 men charged with rape by the IRC in 2007, only thirteen were convicted.
In addition to the stigma placed on victims, there is disagreement among Sierra Leoneans on what actually constitutes rape. For example, marital rape is still not punishable by law. Many people also believe that rape is avoidable, and only occurs at the fault of the victim for her clothing or behavior.
Sierra Leone’s other social problems, such as infant and maternal mortality, take precedence over sexual violence for the local government. “The ministry of health just cannot give it the attention it deserves,” says Glasgow.
Situations like that of Sierra Leone can be prevented if the U.S. Congress passes the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA). If enacted, the I-VAWA would ensure that U.S. foreign assistance programs provide economic opportunities for women as well as education on gender-based violence, reshaping public attitudes on rape.
To help get the I-VAWA passed, please sign the petition or read more about the Act here.