The victimization of women and girls is one of the most common, yet least visible forms of oppression. Its effects extend beyond the bruises and the fear to tear at the very fabric that holds families and communities together.
Although the civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, the war on women has not. Despite the fact that more than a decade has passed since open conflict ended, many fear that rape is more of a problem today than it was during the war. In a country where it is no longer acceptable to shoot someone, raping women is still common practice. Amie Kandeh, coordinator of an International Rescue Committee program in Sierra Leone, says “Gender-based violence encompasses a lot of things: rape, female genital mutilation, child sex abuse, domestic violence, and wife beating.” As the manager and leader of the Rainbo Centers in West Africa, Amie is one of the leading voices against rape in Sierra Leone. The Rainbo Centers are a network of facilities that provide medical care, counseling, legal aid, and educational support for survivors of sexual violence. These are among the first sexual-assault referral centers in West Africa, and in their first eight years, they have served over 9,000 survivors – 80 percent of whom were children, some as young as two months old.
When asked about the male perspective on rape and the age of the girl, Kandeh replied, “Having to de-virginate somebody is a pride, as a result they don’t care how young they are.” Following the end of the civil war, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in Sierra Leone to create an impartial record of the abuses that occurred during conflict. Despite the good intentions behind the program, commission investigators soon found out that gathering information about sexual violence was no easy feat. Like many other countries, women and girls in Sierra Leone confront social taboos against speaking up about being raped or subject to other acts of sexual violence. They face shame and stigma in their own communities if they admit to sexual victimization. Instead of speaking up to stop further abuse, women and girls often keep their mouths shut in order to not bring shame to themselves and their families. In an effort to stop this silent cycle, the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM, now part of UN Women) intervened with advice, training, and other support for the TRC staff and for the victims themselves.
Reforms must be made in Serra Leone’s legal, judicial, and police systems to help make it easier for women to come forward and report cases of domestic and sexual violence. The commission also calls for an end to the customary practice that forced the victims to marry the rapist, while also repealing other customary and statutory laws that discriminate against women. Gender-based violence is not an isolated issue that only takes place in developing countries, but rather a global crisis that cuts across race, class, country, and culture. According to the UN, approximately one out of every three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In order to bring this worldwide crisis to an end, the attitudes and institutions that make this type of behavior possible must be challenged. Strategies to halt the violence include raising public awareness, increasing political will, and providing resources for preventing and responding to these forms of violence.
To learn more about Amie Kandeh and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone, tune in to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This two-night broadcast special will premiere as part of Independent Lens on PBS tonight, October 1 and Tuesday, October 2, 2012.
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