After what the United Nations and civil society groups see as an "alarming" number of sexual abuse cases during the past three months in Sierra Leone, they are calling for action to end impunity in violence against women, especially young girls.
On March 2, in the remote eastern district of Kono, a 12-year-old girl died after allegedly being raped by a 56-year-old man. This is one example of the rise in cases of sexual violence against young girls reported during the past three months in Sierra Leone.
Civil society groups have strongly condemned sexual violence and are calling for targeted action to prevent and prosecute attacks against young girls in the country.
Rule of law and gender specialist Victoria Nwogu, of the U.N. Access to Justice Program, says the sexual violence committed against women during Sierra Leone's civil war has yet to be addressed. Today, the ongoing impunity surrounding rape cases perpetuates the problem.
"So first of all, [it is] the character of a post-conflict state. And then following on that, the impunity for these crimes that were committed during the war, and now an ongoing sense of the fact that a lot of alleged perpetrators of women's rights violations, like sexual abuse, sexual violence, still do get away with their crimes," Nwogu said.
According to the United Nations, nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer some form of sexual or gender-based violence in their lifetime. Many cases go unreported and reported cases seldom lead to convictions. Of more than 7,500 reports in the past 10 years, 40 ended with a conviction.
The government has placed Family Support Units in police departments tasked with protecting victims of sexual and domestic violence. But there are just 43 family support units operating across the country, with few trained staff and no vehicles or basic forensic equipment.
It is not just a question of capacity. Nwogu says inconsistencies in the law relating to sexual offenses also contribute to the culture of impunity.
Rape is punishable by life imprisonment, unless the victim is under 14 years old. In this case, there is no minimum sentence and the few who are convicted receive less than a year.
"Some of the key actions for one is review, repeal and harmonization of some of the problematic legislation, regarding women, regarding discrimination on the basis of sex. And regarding protection of women from sexual and gender-based violence. There is a need to review and harmonize all these legislations," Nwogu said.
Sierra Leone's Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs hopes to pass into law a recently drafted Sexual Offenses Bill that consolidates the various and sometimes contradictory laws relating to sexual violence in the country.