Achieving justice for child victims of sexual violence in Sierra Leone
After being sexually abused, two sisters received help from the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police
In Sierra Leone, an estimated 1,000 children experience sexual violence each year.
KENEMA, Sierra Leone, 13 January 2017 – Teenage sisters, Fanta and Umu*, had a happy childhood in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone, living with their mother and going to school. But within the space of just a few months, both shared a similar traumatic story of abuse by men in their town.
Fanta, now 19, met a middle aged trader on her way to school three years ago. “He was giving me lunch and money to buy shoes and some small stuff, and I thought he was helping me. I never knew his intentions,” she said. He went on to lure her into having sex with him. “He usually had sex with me in a hotel room whenever I left home for school and passed by his stall,” she said.
Her younger sister Umu, then aged 14, was raped at night by a man in his mid-30s while fetching water from one of the wells in the community. As a result, both sisters became pregnant, and sought help at the Rainbow Centre – a local NGO that deals with sexual violence and abuse cases.
The girls’ mother lost no time in reporting the attacks to the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone Police. The FSU is the police branch that deals with sexual violence and abuse – especially cases involving children – as well as child abuse and domestic issues. UNICEF works closely with the FSU, and earlier this year donated 67 motorbikes and a 4x4 vehicle to help the FSU reach families living farther away from major towns.
Equipped with the donated bikes, Police Constable (PC) Edward Smith and Deputy Constable Mohamed Sesay quickly went into action after receiving the report. “As soon as [the trader] realized that we had got wind of his crime against the girl, the trader ran away and is nowhere to be found,” said PC Smith, “but we apprehended the other culprit who was prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to three years imprisonment.”
According to the FSU in Kenema, sexual violence against children in the district is common. The small, one-storey building that houses the police unit is packed inside and out with families coming to report issues of child abuse and violence.
“The most commonly reported cases in this community are sexual penetration and child abuse,” said Police Inspector Marty Tarawally, who heads up the FSU in Kenema, Sierra Leone’s second biggest town. “Every month, we receive around 25 cases of sexual violence against children. We usually charge all sexual abuse cases to court, but our biggest challenge is that quite a few are being compromised and settled in the communities,” she added.
The FSU estimates that over 1,000 children experience sexual violence in the country each year. Between January and September of 2016, the FSU recorded 764 sexual offences against children.
Returning to school
After losing three years of schooling, Fanta is now back in uniform thanks to counselling and support from the FSU. She is determined to move on.
“I am usually late for school as I have to take care of my baby and my books at the same time,” she said. “This is affecting my performance as I have no one to help me except my mother. The baby usually cries at night when I want to study.”
But she hasn’t given up on her ambitions. “I want to be a nurse and I want my baby to be well educated.”
Her younger sister Umu also gave birth, but lost her child during its first six months. She’s hoping to return to school soon.
*names have been changed to protect identities