CategoryGovernance

Sierra Leone’s laws to protect women have unintended consequences, by Luisa Schneider

Age-of-consent law is complex. If it is set too high, there’s a risk that it will undercut young people’s agency. If it is set too low, it does not offer enough protection for vulnerable young people.

This is a conundrum Sierra Leone has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of its civil war, the country has focused on ways to address sexual violence and protect young girls from sexual harassment and grooming. One approach was to create and enact laws designed to criminalise violence and empower women and girls.

The Sexual Offences Act is one example of such legislation. Here, the work of the country’s lawmakers has yielded some positive results: the act protects children, especially girls, who are abused by adults.

But it also circumscribes teenagers’ autonomy. The act raised the age of consent for girls and boys to 18. This effectively criminalises sexual activity between consenting young adults.

As I repeatedly witnessed in court cases during more than a year of fieldwork in the capital city, Freetown, it often results in boys from economically marginalised families being imprisoned after their consensual sexual relationships lead to a young woman falling pregnant. It is presumed by the girls’ families and the wider community that such boys cannot afford to support his partner and their child.

This law, along with the country’s ban on pregnant girls attending school, actually harms young women rather than protecting them.

Violence is not just a private matter between people. Regulating it is not the duty of communities or the state alone. Rather, it is the dialogue and the tensions between these different forces which expose not only how things are “supposed to work”, but also how they “really work”.

Lawmakers and those who craft policy that’s meant to empower and protect women need to consider and take seriously the knowledge of grassroots women’s groups and the criticism voiced by citizens and law enforcement. In this way, Sierra Leone can amend what doesn’t work in its legal framework and strengthen what does, to engender real change.

Criminalising relationships

The Sexual Offences Act was passed in 2012. It raised the age to give sexual consent to 18: the idea was that since girls younger than 18 cannot consent to sex, they cannot be coerced into sexual relationships by much older, powerful men.

However, while conducting my research and observing court cases stemming from the law, I realised that the act’s rigidity often undercuts the agency of young Sierra Leoneans and threatens their futures.

Under the act, men can receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years for having sex with a minor. Since consent is no longer considered, both rape and sexual acts that both parties have agreed to fall into the same category.

This meant some of the cases in Sierra Leone’s courts involved 17-year-old girls (the alleged victim) and 19-year-old boys (the accused) who told the court they were in love. In these instances, the sexual relationship had often been reported by one of the teenagers’ relatives, someone in their community, or a pastor or teacher when the girl became pregnant.

One lawyer I spoke to explained why this was the case:

… Usually the families knew and accepted the relationship but then report when the girl gets pregnant. It is mostly poor boys who are convicted, not rapists, because these boys do not have any money to offer the family of the girl. Often the families think that these boys cannot support their daughter and seek revenge for a spoiled future.

The boy’s conviction and imprisonment sets off a chain of events that leaves young women compromised by the very laws that were apparently designed to help them.

Time to reframe

In cases like those I’ve described, the 19-year-old almost always goes to prison. His 17-year-old girlfriend loses her partner and cannot rely on his help to raise their child.

On top of this, she is also prevented from continuing her education. This is because of Sierra Leone’s pregnancy ban, which was declared by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology when schools re-opened after the Ebola pandemic in 2015.

According to Amnesty International and human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani, the ban – which may be enforced through physical checks – aims to protect “innocent girls” by separating them from pregnant girls, who are seen as negative influences. Temporary alternative classes are provided for pregnant girls, but these are limited and increase girls’ feeling of stigma by isolating them from their peers who aren’t pregnant. Many girls don’t return to school once they’ve given birth.

In the example I’ve outlined here, the law has led to the policing of a young couple’s relationship and put both their futures at risk. However, if the law would include these considerations it could refocus on criminalising rape and would not have to send boyfriends who are barely over 18 to prison.

But it can only include such considerations if it goes beyond reporting statistics and the law’s theoretical intention. Local experts can expose the law’s actual effects in relation to increasing existing inequality and power structures. For instance, a health worker at a Rape Crisis Centre told me

..If the SOA would allow people within a certain age range, like 16-21, to consent to sex and criminalise sex between persons of very different age groups and with very young people, it would stop stigmatising pregnant women, stop sending poor boys to prison but continue to protect small girls.

Through community meetings, focus group discussions and the knowledge of local grassroots organisations, law enforcement and service providers, such effects could be made visible and addressed. In this way Sierra Leone’s laws would become both fairer and more relevant.

Luisa T. Schneider is a Postdoctoral research fellow at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. This post has previously appeared on www.theconversation.com

In between homes – the in-between existence of refugees in transit in Eastleigh, Nairobi, by Lena Johansson (master student at Uppsala University)

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Eastleigh shop in 2009 soon after Obama became US president. Photo by Mats Utas

Eastleigh, Nairobi is pictured as a good area for Somali refugees in media and in UNHCR reports. The migrant Somali population in Eastleigh has developed trade networks and made it a commercial area with major significance not only in East Africa but also globally. According to a report from 2012, by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), asylum seekers and refugees are surprisingly independent and integrated into the socio-economic life in Nairobi. The estate is considered a good area for refugees because of possibilities to socio-economic activities and according to the report, the profile of Eastleigh refugees is “one of incredible resilience and ability to survive in the face of significant odds” (UNHCR 2012). Continue reading

Fragile Security or Fatale Liaisons? Reflections on 2 March 2018 Attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, by Sten Hagberg

On Friday 2 March 2018 around 10 o’clock, two coordinated of terrorist attacks took place in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The first attack involved gunmen seeking to enter the Embassy of France, exchanging fire with soldiers from Burkinabe and French special forces. Four gunmen were killed in the attack against the Embassy, and no casualties among the special forces. The second attack took place a few minutes later. A vehicle stuffed with explosives detonated at the Chief of Defence staff’s headquarters (État-major des Armées), followed by shootings between attackers and Burkinabe defence forces. Eight Burkinabe militaries were killed together with another four attackers. Moreover, there were many wounded in the headquarters. The car bomb seems to have targeted a high-level meeting of senior military staff of the G5 Sahel Joint Force. The blast destroyed the room where the meeting would have taken place had it not been relocated shortly before the attacks.

In total, the attacks led to 16 deaths, including eight assaulters. The number of wounded people amounted to some 80 persons. Yet in the afternoon the same day, French media outlets held that as many as 30 people had been killed. While this information was rejected by Burkinabe public authorities, and soon turned out to be false, it did fuel rumor and speculation, fear and anxiety. Continue reading

The legacy of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Why ‘great aspiration’ is not quite enough, by Leena Vastapuu and Maria Martin de Almagro

The first elected woman head of state in Africa, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has just stepped down from her office in Liberia. Her successor George Weah assumed the position on 22 January 2018.

In a recent interview with CNN entitled “Why Africa owes a debt of gratitude to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf”, President Sirleaf and journalist Chude Jideonwo had the following exchange.

Chude Jideonwo (CJ): You are in your final days as the first female president of an African country. When you step down, there won’t be any more. What does that say to you?   Continue reading

The New Gambia, by Niklas Hultin

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President Adama Barrow greeting the people. Photo by Katarina Höije

It finally became clear on January 21, 2017, that Yahya Jammeh, the long-serving autocratic president of The Gambia would step down and leave the country. The road to this point was a twisty one. Jammeh had lost the December 1, 2016, election to Adama Barrow (who represented a coalition of opposition parties). Although Jammeh, much to everyone’s surprise, initially conceded the election he quickly reverted to form and suggested that the election was not valid and called for a new one to be held–a position rejected by the opposition and the international community. Most notably, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) took a firm line and recognized Barrow as the legitimate president and suggested that they might use military force to oust Jammeh. As negotiations between the parties remained inconclusive,arrow and his associates travelled to Senegal where, on January 19 he took the oath of office at the Gambian High Commission in Dakar. Meanwhile, ECOWAS forces, consisting primarily of Senegalese troops with Nigerian air and naval backing, mobilized to enforce the election results. After a tense period that saw ECOWAS forces briefly enter the country only to pull back, Gambians–and West Africans–could breath a sigh of relief as the by now completely isolated Jammeh agreed to go into exile with not a drop of blood shed. In the evening of January 21, Jammeh boarded a plane for Equatorial Guinea. Continue reading

How John Richardson Joined the NPFL: Charles Taylor’s Confidant Speaks on Liberian Politics and American Warmongering, by Brooks Marmon

One of Charles Taylor’s best known and most eloquent defenders is John T. Richardson, a Liberian architect, who continues to speak with the former Liberian President two to three times a week. Richardson, an American trained architect who launched his career in the 1970s, winning contracts from the African Development Bank, USAID, and the World Bank to construct rural schools and hospitals across Liberia, became an international pariah several decades later when he was placed on a UN travel ban during the last years of the Taylor administration, which he served in various capacities.

Today, Richardson operates from a cramped but well decorated office in a gated compound just off Tubman Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Monrovia. His father, Nathaniel Richardson, was one of Liberia’s greatest historians of the era when the country was dominated by the True Whig Party (TWP) and the descendants of black American immigrants (in which both Taylor and Richardson have their roots).  Although the younger Richardson states, “I have no ambitions politically” he came, as a result of a self-described humanitarian impulse, to play a major role in the calamitous struggle to shape post TWP Liberia, serving as a loyal adviser to Taylor throughout Liberia’s 14 years of armed conflict. Continue reading

The protest march in Guinea and the tragedy of the stray bullet, by Joschka Philipps (Conakry, August 18, 2016)

Thierno Hamidou Diallo, may he rest in peace, was fatally shot on August 16th, 2016. He is the tragic victim of the anti-government demonstration in the Guinean capital Conakry, which he had nothing to do with. The 21-year old man was hanging out the laundry to dry on a balcony when the bullet hit him.

Until then, it had been the most peaceful anti-government demonstration that one could imagine, and probably the first after which the Guinean opposition and the Guinean government congratulated one another for “the discipline and professionalism of the security forces“ (opposition leader Cellou Diallo) and for having successfully taken “another step in our democratic advancement” (government spokesperson Albert Damantang).

About half a million people had attended the political rally at the central stadium, the atmosphere was hopeful, and when the rally was over, the great majority went back to their homes in peace. Continue reading

Governing the world ‘as if’ it counts, by Morten Jerven

The most challenging notion to take on board in the governance of today’s world is that not all that counts can be counted. We increasingly rely on numbers as shortcuts to information about the world that we do not have time to digest.

The name of the game is governance “as if” the world counts. It might be a smart shortcut sometimes, but we are in deep trouble if we forget that we are doing it “as if” the world counts. Leadership should take making good decisions seriously. If the method by which we get knowledge and the method by which we make decisions is limited to what can be numbered, we are setting up a system of governance that’s systematically getting stuff that actually counts wrong. Continue reading

One year after the elections: a deceptive calm in Burundi? by Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

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Burundian soldiers patrolling the streets of Bujumbura. Photo by the author

The car stops and the driver turns off the ignition and leans back in the seat. Before us winds a long queue of cars and minivans in the afternoon sun. People have gone out of their cars and sit in the shade along the roadside. Talking, eating, listening to the radio. The atmosphere is calm and quiet, but also restrained, subdued. Everyone is careful, observant. The scenario has become common in the capital Bujumbura in recent times. Streets and intersections blocked off to all traffic, often for several hours, waiting for the President’s convoy to pass. Usually it occurs when Nkurunziza is on his way in or out of the capital to the countryside where he prefers to stay most the time. When the convoy eventually passes, nobody is allowed nearby, no cars and no people. All street corners are emptied. Even the security personnel guarding the streets must physically turn their heads away, direct their weapons in a different direction, and may not look at the passing cars.

 

Continue reading

The Inner Beast released after Ugandan Elections 2016, Marianne Bach Mosebo

The Ugandan Presidential Election in 2016 left many Ugandans frustrated and angry at the election process and the announcement of the incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, as the winner with approximately 60% of the votes. Unfortunately, rather than uniting the Ugandan people in a fight for a free and fair democratic environment in Uganda, social media is reap with statements blaming the result on the marginalised and already maligned Karimojong people in Uganda’s North-eastern corner. Karamoja is a remote region in Uganda, which has the highest poverty and illiteracy rates in the country. Ugandans are angry and frustrated and they are releasing the Inner Beast on those that are easy to blame rather than those who are actually to blame. Continue reading

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