CategorySexual Violence

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

A review of Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Sterns book Sexual violence as a weapon of war? Perceptions, prescriptions, problems in the Congo and beyond, by Nadja Piiroinen (2015).

During the spring term I taught African Studies at Uppsala University. Students created a blog Uppsala African Reviews where they published reviews of books with a focus on contemporary African issues. Nadja Piiroinen is one of the students.

As a feminist I have had many reasons to feel hopeful during the last few years. As a consumer of entertainment I’ve watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler slay the last three Golden Globes, Taylor Swift make a 180, going from ignorant to feminist-spokes person with her now bff Lena Dunham, I’ve binged through SVT‘s Full Patte twice, and I cried as Beyoncé, standing tall in front giant letters spelling out the word feminist, became a gif, not talk about the whole Emma Watson amazingness. As a Swede I have seen a growing political movement for mainstreaming an intersectional feminist agenda, I’ve seen that movement intimidate the political establishment to include more feminist talking points, to form a ‘feminist government’, and appointing a minister of foreign affairs that has promised a ‘feminist’ foreign policy. These are some of the examples that have opened up for my hopefulness and enthusiasm, the atmosphere feels changed, and not just in Sweden anymore, slowly but surely being a feminist in Hollywood is going from taboo to norm, and personally, I’m loving it. Continue reading

‘Monster’ Myth Hides Complexity of Sexual Violence in Conflict, by Henri Myrttinen

First posted June 13, 2014

This week has seen a flurry of activity around an issue that for far too long has been forgotten, silenced or viewed as an inevitable consequence of war: sexual violence in conflict.

London has been the centre of activity, where hundreds of politicians, activists, researchers, campaigners, care providers and, most importantly, survivors of sexual violence gathered for the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict conference.

All of this is extremely important – but in the rush to ‘do something’ about the horrific crimes being committed in Syria, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and other conflict zones, we should not forget some basic premises.

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Rape Claims and article 15: Reflections on Researching Sexual Violence in the Armed Conflict of Eastern DRC, by Charlotte Mertens

September 2012. My Congolese friend Marie-Noël, who runs a small, community-based NGO, welcomes us in Ruzizi, a border town between Rwanda and the DRC. We hop in her jeep and head for Bukavu. Five minutes later, the car is stopped. Two men have barricaded the road with a large tree branch. Fidel, our driver, refuses to pay the money they ask for. He shouts at them to let us pass. The men give in, open the barrier and exclaim ‘c’est pour la sécurité régionale!/ it is for our regional security!’, which is met with a roar of laughter on the street. Marie-Noël laughs too. She explains fictional article 15 of the former Zaïrean constitution which means ‘débrouillez-vous/fend for yourself’. Article 15, also known as ‘système D’, came into existence under Mobutu’s dictatorship. It allows the ‘petit prédateur’/little predator (Devisch, 1998) a social space of power ‘in a context where the difference between legality and illegality makes no more sense’ (Jourdan in Vlassenroot & Raeymaekers, 2004). Institutionalised in all levels of society, article 15 allows every civilian to grab whatever his predicament can afford for his daily survival. In the wartorn Kivus, ‘système D’ has become the rule for individual behaviour. I think about the women who claim they have been raped to get access to medical care and wonder whether this occurrence of would-be victims can be considered as a normal expression of  ‘système D’ or ‘survival maximising behaviour’.

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Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War, by Marsha Henry

It’s the first day of Lent term and the students are nervously gathered in a small stuffy classroom. When I walk in and head towards the front of the room, the group falls silent. I introduce myself and we start a round of introductions and I ask students to speak briefly about their interest in the course. The first student tells me, and the class, that she’s in IR (International Relations), and is keen to take the course because she’s interested in studying sexual violence in war. Another student turns to her, incredulous because she too is interested in that exact subject, and that furthermore she has worked for 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has ‘seen a lot’. A few more students echo similar interests and I’m trying hard not to stereotype these students. But it’s difficult. A mythical figure is beginning to crystallise in my head and I can’t stop it. This figure is young, female and possibly middle-class, sometimes Scandinavian. She’s studying IR, Human Rights or Gender Studies. A few male students also indicate an interest. Some indicate interest in other topics, but there is a numbers problem from the outset. I feel uncomfortable as this is the third year that I’ve taught this course, each time allotting only one lecture week to the subject of sexual violence in war, and subsuming it under the larger heading of ‘gender, sexualised violence and work in militarised contexts’. Each year students have asked for more time to be devoted to the subject, for the lecture week to be moved up, and for their to be less focus on diversity in the armed forces. When students come to me during office hours to discuss the scope of their dissertations on the subject I fidget. After a few conversations with colleagues, I decide I need to start compiling a list – of compelling reasons why students should not write on the subject of sexual violence in war. But what would I do with this list? Can it be shared? And what of my responsibility not to teach on the subject?

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Will UN “rape ultimatums” end abuses by the Congolese army? by Maria Eriksson Baaz, Maria Stern, Judith Verweijen

Last week the headlines of various international media, including the BBC, Reuters and Jeune Afrique, featured the story of an ultimatum issued by the UN peace keeping force in the DR Congo (MONUSCO) over allegations of mass rape committed by the Congolese army (FARDC) in the town of Minova in November 2012. The alleged rapes were committed by fleeing/retreating FARDC troops in the wake of the M23 rebel advance and take-over of Goma. Unless “swift legal action” is taken by the end of March, MONUSCO says, it will stop working with the two battalions identified as harboring the perpetrators of rape.

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