In February 2019, amid a slew of high-profile cases and pressure from the public, Sierra Leone‘s President Julius Maada Bio declared a state of emergency over sexual and gender-based violence in the country.
Activists welcomed what they saw as willingness from top officials to put sexual and gender-based violence on the national agenda and tackle a taboo that has long plagued the West African country of 7.5 million.
An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 exacerbated the problem, closing schools across the country for eight months, which left girls vulnerable to assault and resulted in a surge in teenage pregnancy.
One year on from Bio’s announcement – and with the state of emergency having been quietly revoked in June – opinions differ as to the move’s effectiveness in creating long-term change.
“There has been a difference in the response to the issue because people are better informed,” Alison French, advocacy and communications director for Rainbo Initiative (RI), told Al Jazeera. “There is the political will and so the reporting of cases have increased.”
RI says it is the only organisation in Sierra Leone providing free medical and psychosocial treatment for survivors of gender-based violence. Its five centres recorded 3,701 cases of sexual assault, 3,897 cases of gender-based violence and 196 cases of physical assault in 2019.
All but 65 of the cases of sexual assault involved children under the age of 18.
Analysts and activists, including First Lady Fatima Maada Bio, say the actual number is likely much higher as many cases still go unreported.
“Sexual violence in Sierra Leone affects any and everyone as there are no age limits. RI has recorded [cases] as young as a seven-month-old baby and as old as a 70-year-old woman,” French said, adding that the group has noted pregnancies resulting from sexual assault in girls as young as 11.
While the state of emergency brought renewed attention to sexual and gender-based violence, it has also been criticised as merely a temporary fix.
Emergency measures lasted only until the June revocation, and no money was allocated to implementing promises made during the period, including free hospital care for rape survivors and a hotline for reporting abuse.
Analysts have also questioned the necessity of the proclamation, saying that many of the changes could have been made through regular legal channels.
“[It] was an attempt to create publicity at best,” said Luisa T Schneider, a researcher at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology who is writing a book on Sierra Leone’s legal, civil and social efforts to combat sexual violence.
“At worst, it was a window for potential abuse of power, which could have led to speedy legal changes in other areas and undermined citizens’ fundamental rights.”
Fatmata Sorie is president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS), an all-female legal group formed during the war to advocate for the protection and promotion of women and girls’ rights. She that, while problematic, the state of emergency had a positive effect in leading to the creation of a sexual offences division within the judiciary and a new police unit for investigating sexual assault.
Following the end of the state of emergency, Parliament passed The Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019, which increased the maximum penalty for rape and sexual penetration of a child from 15 years to life imprisonment and criminalised the so-called “compromise”, in which the offence is settled by family members or village heads, without police involvement.
While some hope the amendment will act as a deterrent to attackers, others say the tough new sentences could discourage survivors from reporting abuse as assaults often occur in tight-knit communities and survivors may face social pressure not to come forward.
Schneider said the heavy sentences were also “problematic” in light of the medically unsound means of detecting whether an attack has taken place, which consider the condition of a woman or girl’s hymen as the main piece of evidence.
“Without forensic evidence, with little, sometimes no investigations and with court cases that allow only directly implicated persons and eye witnesses to be called, such high sentences are problematic,” she said.
“Clearly perpetrators should be imprisoned and there should be zero tolerance for violence, but we must uphold an interpretation of the law that adheres to one of its main pillars: innocent until proven guilty.”
Even armed with the tough new legislation, Sierra Leone’s legal system faces several hurdles in prosecuting sexual abuse cases.
Understaffing and a lack of resources and equipment are common, while police, lawyers and judges are overworked and underpaid, Schneider said. Heavy caseloads, meanwhile, mean litigants often wait years until their cases are heard.
More needs to be done to improve countrywide access to legal and health services and to ensure all people are treated equally before the law, Sorie told Al Jazeera, adding that establishing forensic labs and making rape kits available would help strengthen the legal response to incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.
Legal reforms, however effective or not, are just one piece of a complex puzzle when tackling the issue, and while bills can be fast-tracked, attitudes take longer to change.
In June, the same month that Bio lifted the state of emergency, Education Minister Alpha Timbo appeared to place the blame for rape on female victims, reportedly saying at a UN-sponsored conference: “Sometimes women are to blame. They provoke the men to rape them”.
After a fierce backlash, Timbo apologised on national television, saying there was “nothing to … justify rape”.
Changing such attitudes is a daily challenge for Miriam Mason, country director for EducAid – an NGO running schools and outreach programmes in Sierra Leone.
EducAid’s work in fostering a “girl-friendly” environment in schools ranges from protecting girls from early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) to promoting self-esteem and respect.
“At the heart of that is equity and equality and recognising that every person has the right to be respected as an equal, has the right to access a full education. In this context, girls are significantly disadvantaged,” Mason told Al Jazeera.
“The expectation that a woman will make her own decisions and will choose her own partner, will decide whether or not to get an education just isn’t [the case]”.
Mason acknowledged that the tough sentences in the 2019 amendment “made people sit up and pay attention” to sexual and gender-based violence, but said that putting the role of women and girls at the centre of education is essential to changing attitudes.
“You can’t do a complete job without taking this very seriously and having it central to everything that’s being said: challenging gender stereotypes in every way that we can, providing alternative role models and an alternative way of looking at things as well as strategies so that people can start to believe it and make it practical,” Mason said.
The government’s Hands Off Our Girls campaign – spearheaded by the first lady – and so-called “husband schools” are also trying to combat harmful stereotypes, but progress is difficult to measure.
“A solution is only achievable through close collaboration between grassroots, civil society, government and lawmakers,” Schneider said.
“But without the bravery of survivors who have come forward and reported, none of the current developments would be possible”.