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Young Women Speak Out About Sexual Abuse in Sierra Leone

Young girls are still coming out to speak about their experiences of sexual violence

Anita Kpakiwa, 22, who at age 16 was abducted by rebels who killed her entire family, recounts her story
during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war, which ended almost three years ago. In response to the horror of what happened to them, Sierra Leoneans are breaking taboos and speaking out against sexual abuse in general.

Girls as young as seven-years old were abducted and forced into sexual slavery by Sierra Leone's two rebel groups during the civil war.

Many girls were too traumatized and afraid to admit what had happened to them or could not get access to aid programs when the war ended. They are still gradually coming out to tell their stories.

Now 12-years old, a young girl, who prefers to be called Aminatta, has only recently come to get counseling for being a victim of gang rape. She says a friend told her about the center in the town of Makeni, run by the non-governmental organization Action for Children in Conflict. The agency provides medical advice and legal counseling for sexually abused children.

"I was about 10-years old when I was raped by my brother and a group of four older boys," she said. "Later on, when I heard about this center, I decided to come and make a report. I came here and they have been counseling me from this time."

Aminatta has not seen her brother since she was raped, and says that he was part of the Revolutionary United Front Rebels, although he was not much older than her at the time of the rape.

Rebel groups recruited child soldiers injecting them with drugs so that they would fight better. Sexual violence was used as a weapon, and family members were forced to watch daughters or wives being raped, or were forced to rape them themselves.

Even today, sexual attacks continue in Sierra Leone. UNICEF protection officer Donald Shaw estimates that 3,000 cases of sexual abuse occur in a year, often committed by family members or friends. But, Mr. Shaw believes that the sexual violence that occurred during the war has made people speak out against it now.

"By actually indiscriminately raping children this resulted in seeing the horror of sexual assault or rape. The extreme, extreme case, so it was not a friend or it wasn't an uncle. How that made the link is that with the culture, NGO's, with religious institutions, we were able to start to frame it in a bigger context. That actually raping a child in a war or non-war context is wrong," he said.

Through campaigns organizations like UNICEF are making people aware of sexual abuse in society and more victims are breaking the social taboos about talking about abuse and coming forward.

A rape councilor for Action for Children in Conflict Sadama Michaels says that the organization has begun to offer free legal services to children who want to take their case to court.

"Now we are having somebody who is a lawyer. We do report these cases and we will not let these cases go like that," she said. "So we want to tell the parents when these things happen not just to keep it a secret, let them bring it, so they can bring these perpetrators to justice."

A young girl recently won her case in court, using free legal services provided by Action for Children in Conflict, against her neighbor who, she says, sexually abused her.

Although sexual abuse laws in Sierra Leone have not changed, they are being enforced and children's complaints are taken seriously. In order to accommodate victims, police and social welfare officers are also being re-trained and educated on how to deal with sexual abuse cases.