Family Support Unit improving systems to support survivors of violence and abuse

Supporting the Government of Sierra Leone to address violence and abuse

Tapuwa Mutseyekwa
A man stands by a door inside a building in Freetown
unicefsierraleone/2022/Mutseyekwa
14 April 2022

Freetown - Superintendent Mohamed S. Y. Mansaray, who works at the Family Support Unit (FSU) as Capacity Building and Operations Officer, arrives at the Central Investigate Department (CID) in Freetown to begin his working day. He knows that this new day can usher in varying emotions. 

As a police official working closely with victims and survivors of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence, his day is bound to be filled with either the satisfaction of concluding on a long running case or the sadness of witnessing the grim reality of heightened crimes against women and children.

By the time he sets foot in the office, more than 30 people, including children and caregivers, are already being attended to by the investigating officers who have been assigned to the Family Support Unit – a specialised unit of the police, whose duty is to investigate Gender Based Violence and all forms of abuse and violence against children.

“Rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and child trafficking are some of the many cases we have responded to since this unit was formed in 2007” says Mansaray, as he talks through the range of cases which are attended to at this centre. “Each case is unique, and in all cases the unit ensures to provide swift and confidential support services to the victims and survivors” says Mansaray.

Apart from housing an FSU on site, the CID headquarters in Freetown is also the central hub where information from the 79 other FSUs is received and consolidated to show current statistics and trends of violence against children in Sierra Leone. In 2021, the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police registered 4,468 cases of violence against children, with almost half of these cases constituting sexual offences, mostly against girls (2,064).

The emergence of COVID-19, which coincided with heightened household stress, lowered household incomes, and decreased access to services was a contributing factor to increasing children’s vulnerability to abuse, exploitation, and all forms of violence.

A woman talks to a child inside an office in Freetown.
unicefsierraleone/2022/Mutseyekwa
At the Family Support Unit, victims and survivors of abuse go through psychosocial support sessions with trained counsellors.

On a day like this in 2021, a 16-year-old girl was among the many victims who came through to file a complaint of rape.  Coming from a financially constrained family, which had been offered money by the perpetrator to influence their silence, the young girl made the brave choice to report the case and seek justice for herself against her parents’ will. The girl was not only shaken by the experience of rape but was afraid of how to face her family.  

“Cases of sexual violence against girls coming from poor families are high. When such cases get to us, we find ways of separating the girl from her family and support ways to fast track the litigation process,” says Mansaray, as he explains the different dynamics faced by investigating officers to not only ensure that the perpetrators are brought to book, but also to ensure there is sufficient physical, medical and psychological support to the victims and survivors of abuse.  

“I am happy that apart from managing to separate this girl from her family, we were successful in working with the court officials to fast track the case. The perpetrator is now serving a lengthy sentence,” says Mansaray, as he sheds light on how current support to the FSU is helping to improve how to synchronise their support to victims and to monitor cases.

In 2021, a contribution from the Government of Japan helped UNICEF to support the FSU’s drive to improve services and systems, while also developing the capacity of the 80 different FSU stations to improve access to and develop the capacity of a GBV prevention and response system.

Through this support, which was earmarked by Japan to strengthen Sierra Leone’s response to COVID-19, links have now been formed between FSU and relevant social and legal services, including the courts (Magistrate, High and Appeal courts), which are accessed by victims as they go through the trial period and recovery.

A man holds a digital tablet inside a building in Freetown.
unicefsierraleone/2022/Mutseyekwa
Inspector Alfred Bobb Sellu showing the tablets which districts are using to record statistics and transmit to the headquarters.

The strengthening of the information management system has also been undertaken. Today, investigation officers are able to log into the database of the cases they are handling at district level and transmit data to the national level where it is analysed, and the information is used to alert stakeholders of the extent and nature of violence against children and to flag areas where cases of violence against children are most pronounced.

“All children are vulnerable to abuse and violence. The COVID-19 pandemic mounted this vulnerability, and more children are known to have experienced violence during this period. The support from the Government of Japan is therefore a welcome contribution towards efforts to prevent violence, respond to any cases which arise and ensure that sufficient support is provided to children who are affected by these crimes,” said Nassal Kebbie, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist.

Mansaray is also happy that a lot of awareness raising and information dissemination has been taking place, alerting children and caregivers to know the potential signs of child abuse and providing them with information on where such cases can be handled. With the various improvements to strengthening the operations of the FSUs and with the increased knowledge that people have about how to report cases of violence against children, Mansaray is confident that cases of violence will soon be reduced within communities and that effective responses will be carried out whenever an offence is committed.