Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone
A Report by Physicians for Human Rights with the support of UNAMSIL
Boston - Washington DC
Founded in 1986, Physicians for Human Rights mobilizes the health professions to promote health by protecting human rights. PHR shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its role as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
Press Release - January 23, 2002
Physicians for Human Rights Study Documents High Rate of Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone; Special Court Must Hold Perpetrators Accountable for Abuses
Boston - A new study released today by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), with the support of UNAMSIL (UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone), War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone: A Population-Based Assessment, reports that internally displaced women and girls in Sierra Leone have suffered an extraordinary level of rape, sexual violence and other gross human rights violations during their country's civil war, with half of those who said they came into contact with RUF (Revolutionary United Front) forces reporting sexual violence. (The report is available on the web in its entirety at http://www.phrusa.org) PHR called on the newly announced Special Court to prioritize crimes of sexual violence and ensure the protection of witnesses.
The study, which reports findings from a survey of 991 households, is the first to evaluate the prevalence of sexual violence during war in Sierra Leone using population-based random sample methods. The PHR report issues strong findings and recommendations that stress the need for education and adequate protection and support for survivors of these abuses, especially those who wish to testify against the perpetrators of these abuses. The findings of the report suggest that thousands of women in Sierra Leone may be willing to testify to the recently announced Special Court and the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) about these crimes. Portions of the report were published in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Virtually all (94%) of the households randomly surveyed reported at least one person having suffered abuses in the past ten years. These abuses include abduction, beatings, killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, forced labor, gunshot wounds, serious injuries, and amputations. Approximately one of every eight (female and male) households (13%) interviewed by PHR reported some form of war-related sexual violence, and 9% of individual female respondents reported such abuses. The prevalence rate of war-related sexual violence during the ten-year period of the civil war is equivalent to the lifetime prevalence of non war-related sexual violence among the study participants.
When asked if perpetrators of sexual violence and other abuses should be punished, almost half (42%) of respondents to this question thought that they should. Fear of reprisals and a desire for peace were cited by many women as a reason for not supporting punishment for human rights violators. Though 80% of women surveyed expressed support for legal protection of women's rights, more than half of the women said that their husbands had the right to beat them and that it was the wife's duty to have sex with her husband even if she did not want to.
The vast majority of reported abuses occurred between 1997 and 1999, and most were identified as having been committed by RUF combatants. 53% of respondents who had "face to face" contact with RUF forces experienced some form of sexual violence, compared with a 6% figure for any other combatant group. One third of those who reported sexual assault said that they were gang raped. When the total number of war-related sexual violence incidents reported by the survey participants is extrapolated to the total female internally displaced population in Sierra Leone, 50,000 to 64,000 Sierra Leonean internally displaced women may have suffered sexual violence. If non war-related sexual violence among females who are not internally displaced is added to the totals (assuming a 9% prevalence rate) for the internally displaced women, as many as 215,000-257,000 women and girls in Sierra Leone currently may have been affected by sexual violence.
"The recently established Special Court for Sierra Leone provides an opportunity for justice for the victims of the extreme levels of sexual violence perpetrated against the women and girls of Sierra Leone by the RUF and other forces," said Leonard Rubenstein, Executive Director of PHR. "This report details the extent to which rape and sexual violence were used as a weapon in this case, and, like with the Foca verdict, underscore the importance of bringing to justice those who commit these heinous crimes."
Participants reporting war-related sexual violence related the following types of abuses: rape (89%), being forced to undress/stripped of clothing (37%), gang rape (33%), abduction (33%), molestation (14%), sexual slavery (15%), forced marriage (9%), and insertion of foreign objects into the genital opening or anus (4%). In addition, 22 (23%) of the women who experienced sexual violence reported being pregnant at the time of the attack with an average gestation of three months. Besides the overwhelming quantitative evidence of sexual abuse uncovered by the study, narrative testimonials are also included as part of the documentation of these abuses.
"I don't have any children. I was a virgin before. They ruined me. I was at home when they came and kidnapped me. They demanded money. My family has no money…they said to my parents, come and see how we use your children. They undressed five of us, laid us down, used us in front of my family and took us away with them. They wouldn't release us, they kept us with them in the bush…When I escaped, I couldn't walk - the pain. I was bleeding from my vagina," said Isata, a 15 year-old girl interviewed by the PHR team.
PHR randomly sampled 1,048 households in three camps for the internally displaced, representing 91% of the registered displaced population in Sierra Leone. The 991 household representatives who participated in the survey reported on the experiences of 9,166 household members, which included themselves and those who lived with them prior to their displacement. The PHR survey contained 49 questions pertaining to demographics, physical and mental health perception, experiences of human rights abuses among household members and experiences of sexual violence, assistance needs, opinions regarding punishment and justice for perpetrators, and attitudes on women's human rights and roles in society. Seven open-ended questions were included in the questionnaire itself, and longer semi-structured interviews were conducted with survivors of human rights abuses who were not participants in the survey.
"By documenting the wartime experiences of women in Sierra Leone, this report will provide a valuable contribution in making the post-conflict needs of women and girls more apparent," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, in the report's forward. "Its findings should be taken into consideration in the formulation of repatriation and resettlement plans, as well as demobilization, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction programs."
The report issues strong recommendations to all parties involved in the post-conflict reconstruction of Sierra Leone, including the Governments of Sierra Leone, the United States and other bilateral donors, the United Nations and the Special Court. Among these recommendations, PHR strongly urges the Government of Sierra Leone to actively engage in large-scale public education of women, men and youth on sexual violence and human rights of women, especially demilitarized soldiers, working in collaboration with local non-governmental organizations and women's groups at the community level. The Government of Sierra Leone should also immediately address the needs of survivors of sexual violence through the provision of health services, referral and transportation assistance, culturally appropriate counseling, and long-term efforts to encourage community acceptance and assistance for rape survivors and their families.
The UN should ensure that rape and other types of gender-based violence are prioritized as crimes by the Special Court and that perpetrators of these crimes from all sides in the conflict are held accountable. To be successful in prosecuting these crimes, the UN must work closely with the Government of Sierra Leone to train the staffs of the TRC and the Special Court to prevent further traumatization of survivors of rape, sexual assault and other abuses. By providing counseling for survivors before and after they testify, and through ensuring their protection when they return to their local communities after testifying, the Special Court will be better able to both assist survivors and collect the information they need to prosecute these cases.
To the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)
To the Government of Sierra Leone
To the United States Government and other Bilateral Donors
Justice and Law Enforcement
To the United Nations