The International Organization for Migration will assist hundreds of women who suffered sexual violence during Sierra Leone's long-running civil war. The program, which is funded by the German government, is part of a larger reparation effort, following the recommendations by Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2004.
Sierra Leone's civil war ended in 2002. But, the legacy of 11 years of atrocities committed against the civilian population lingers on.
Senior legal officer for the International Organization for Migration, Heike Niebergall tells VOA a program gets under way this month to assist some 650 vulnerable and needy women who suffered rape and other forms of sexual violence during the war.
"This is the first time anywhere that following a conflict during which violence against women was widespread, that following such a conflict, a reparation's program specifically targets-specifically addresses the needs of victims of sexual violence," she said.
A report published by the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 identified five groups of victims eligible for war reparations. They include amputees, war wounded, war widows, children affected by the war, such as orphans and victims of sexual violence.
Tens of thousands of people died during the civil war, which began in 1991. More than two million people were displaced, many becoming refugees in neighboring countries.
The range of atrocities committed during the war was enormous and of exceptional cruelty. Children were forced to become soldiers. Women and girls were raped and forced into sexual slavery. People had their limbs chopped off, a tactic aimed at terrorizing the population.
Niebergall says quite unusually, but thankfully, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission paid particular attention to the plight of women in conflict and to the specific needs they face in today's society.
"Given the stigmatization of victims of sexual violence who often are blamed for what happened to them and they are abandoned by their families, by their husbands and often are left totally to themselves and are not integrated into the society," she said. "And, in Sierra Leone given the widespread of sexual violence during the conflict, many, many women are affected."
No one knows how many women have been victims of sexual violence. It is believed to run into the hundreds of thousands. Given this vast number, the 650 women in the assistance program barely touches the tip of the problem.
Niebergall is among the first to acknowledge this. But, given the level of funding, she says this is all that is possible for now. However, she says this pilot project undoubtedly will spawn other such programs.
Over the next six months, she says the women will receive training and a cash allowance of up to $500. She says IOM will help them set up small businesses or seek additional education.
As part of the program, she says the women will receive regular trauma counseling.