Throughout the armed conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001, thousands of women and girls of all ages, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes were subjected to widespread and systematic sexual violence, including individual and gang rape, and rape with objects such as weapons, firewood, umbrellas, and pestles. Rape was perpetrated by both sides, but mostly by the rebel forces. These crimes of sexual violence were generally characterized by extraordinary brutality and frequently preceded or followed by other egregious human rights abuses against the victim, her family, and her community. Although the rebels raped indiscriminately irrespective of age, they targeted young women and girls whom they thought were virgins. Many of these younger victims did not survive these crimes of sexual violence. Adult women were also raped so violently that they sometimes bled to death or suffered from tearing in the genital area, causing long-term incontinence and severe infections. Many victims who were pregnant at the time of rape miscarried as a result of the sexual violence they were subjected to, and numerous women had their babies torn out of their uterus as rebels placed bets on the sex of the unborn child.
The main perpetrators of sexual violence, including sexual slavery, were the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the West Side Boys, a splinter group of the AFRC. Human Rights Watch has documented over three hundred cases of sexual violence by the rebels; countless more have never been documented. From the launch of their rebellion from Liberia in March 1991, which triggered the war, the RUF perpetrated widespread and systematic sexual violence. Its ideology of salvaging Sierra Leone from the corrupt All People's Congress (APC) regime quickly degenerated into a campaign of violence whose principal aim was to gain access to the country's abundant diamond mines. The AFRC, which consisted of disaffected soldiers from the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) who in May 1997 overthrew the elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, were also responsible for subjecting thousands of women and girls to sexual violence, including sexual slavery. After the signing of the peace agreement in Lomé, Togo, in July 1999, sexual violence, including sexual slavery, continued unabated in RUF-controlled areas and was also perpetrated by the West Side Boys, who operated outside of the capital, Freetown. The human rights situation worsened after the May 2000 crisis when fighting broke out again, until relative peace was re-established, with U.N. and British assistance, by mid-2001. The prevalence of sexual violence peaked during active military operations and when the rebels were on patrol. Even in times of relative peace, however, sexual violence continued to be committed against the thousands of women and girls who were abducted and subjected to sexual slavery by the rebels. No region of Sierra Leone was spared.
Human Rights Watch has documented only a limited number of cases of sexual violence by pro-government forces, the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and the militia known as Civil Defense Forces (CDF), the latter consisting of groups of traditional hunters and young men who were called upon by the government to defend their native areas. Human Rights Watch has not documented any cases of sexual violence by the SLA prior to 1997. This may in part be due to the fact that survivors would have often found it difficult to distinguish between rebel and government soldiers, as the latter frequently colluded with and disguised themselves as RUF forces. Sexual violence was committed relatively infrequently by the CDF, whose internal rules forbid them from having sexual intercourse before going to battle and who believe their power and potency as warriors depends upon sexual abstinence. Some of this internal discipline, however, was lost as CDF moved away from their native areas and traditional chiefs and were given more responsibility in national security. Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of rape by the largest and most powerful CDF group, the Kamajors, who operate predominantly in the south and east.
Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of sexual violence by peacekeepers with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), including the rape of a twelve-year-old girl in Bo by a soldier of the Guinean contingent and the gang rape of a woman by two Ukrainian soldiers near Kenema. There appears to be reluctance on the part of UNAMSIL to investigate and take disciplinary measures against the perpetrators. Reports of rape by peacekeepers with the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the majority of whom were Nigerian, deployed at an earlier stage in the war, were rare. Both ECOMOG and UNAMSIL peacekeepers have sexually exploited women, including the solicitation of child prostitutes, whilst deployed in Sierra Leone.
Rape in wartime is an act of violence that targets sexuality. Moreover, conflict-related sexual violence serves a military and political strategy. The humiliation, pain, and fear inflicted by the perpetrators serve to dominate and degrade not only the individual victim but also her community. Combatants who rape in war often explicitly link their acts of sexual violence to this broader social degradation. The armed conflict in Sierra Leone was no exception. The rebels sought to dominate women and their communities by deliberately undermining cultural values and community relationships, destroying the ties that hold society together. Child combatants raped women who were old enough to be their grandmothers, rebels raped pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and fathers were forced to watch their daughters being raped.
To date there has been no accountability for the thousands of crimes of sexual violence or other appalling human rights abuses committed during the war in Sierra Leone. The 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement included a blanket amnesty under Sierra Leonean law for offenses committed by all sides, as the price for the RUF/AFRC agreeing to lay down arms. The United Nations (U.N.) stated that it did not recognize the Lomé amnesty insofar as it purported to apply to international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
Two important transitional justice mechanisms, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have been established with U.N. assistance and are tasked with investigating the human rights abuses, including sexual violence and sexual slavery, committed by all parties during the war. Both bodies were operational by the third quarter of 2002. The SCSL, a hybrid national and international court, is mandated by the U.N. Security Council to try "persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law" committed in the Sierra Leonean conflict since November 30, 1996. As the SCSL is likely to try only a very limited number of persons, due to funding constraints, a clear and comprehensive prosecutorial strategy is essential, with a strong affirmation that gender-related crimes will be thoroughly and competently investigated and rigorously prosecuted as crimes against humanity or war crimes. The TRC, provided for under the 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement partially to offset the controversial amnesty it also included, has the mandate to establish an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law from the outset of the war in 1991, promote reconciliation, and make recommendations aimed at preventing a repetition of the violations committed. The final report on the findings of the TRC should highlight the crimes of sexual violence committed throughout the entire country during the armed conflict and make recommendations to strengthen the promotion and protection of women's human rights.
Sexual violence has remained Sierra Leone's silent war crime. Until recently, little attention has been paid either nationally or internationally to this less visible human rights abuse, although sexual violence was committed on a much larger scale than the highly visible amputations for which Sierra Leone became notorious. The underreporting is a reflection of the low status of women and girls in Sierra Leone as well as the internal shame that survivors suffer and their fear of rejection by family and communities. Women and girls in Sierra Leone are subjected to structural discrimination by practice, custom and law. They face discrimination in terms of education and employment, in the political arena, and in other walks of life. Both customary law, which governs the majority of the population, and general law, which was inherited from the United Kingdom and is primarily applied in Freetown, discriminate against women and girls in terms of family law, as well as property and inheritance rights. In addition, the provisions pertaining to rape under general and customary law offer inadequate protection. The misinterpretation of the complicated provisions of general law by the police and courts means, for example, that those who are alleged to have sexually assaulted a minor are generally charged with "unlawful carnal knowledge of a child," for which the sentence is lighter, rather than rape. Under customary law, the perpetrator is generally required to pay a substantial fine to the victim's family as well as to the chiefs. The victim may also be forced to marry the perpetrator.
The concept of sexual violence as a crime in itself is a very recent one in Sierra Leone's patriarchal society. Only rape of a virgin is seen as a serious crime. Rape of a married woman or a non-virgin is often not considered a crime at all: as in many countries, there is often a belief that the woman must have consented to the act, or she is seen as a seductress. The virtual destruction of Sierra Leone's already corrupt and inefficient court system and police force during the war, moreover, created a climate of impunity that persists, allowing perpetrators of sexual violence (as well as other crimes) to escape justice.
The lack of attention to conflict-related sexual violence means that few assistance programs have been established for women and girls who were subjected to sexual violence, including sexual slavery. Survivors not only live with the severe physical and mental health consequences of the abuses suffered, but also fear ongoing non-conflict-related sexual violence, largely perpetrated with impunity. International donors and nongovernmental organizations should work together with the government of Sierra Leone to establish programs (health care, education, adult literacy, skills training, trauma counseling, and income-generating schemes) that will help to rehabilitate the survivors of sexual violence. To combat impunity and work toward changing societal attitudes toward sexual violence, the government of Sierra Leone should, with the technical and financial support of the international community, revise its discriminatory laws to ensure that they meet international standards. The constitution also needs to be reviewed and the provision exempting personal and customary law from the prohibition against discrimination removed. In addition, the government should take steps to improve the response of the legal system to ongoing sexual and domestic violence, including strategies for effective prosecution and protection. A nationwide public awareness campaign also needs to be undertaken to educate the general population on women's human rights.
Women have a crucial role to play at this critical phase in Sierra Leone's history, but they will only be able to contribute fully in a civic culture in which women and girls are respected as equal partners and gender-based abuses are not tolerated.