Report: Routine Rapes, Abuse in Sierra Leone War

The war in West Africa's Sierra Leone displaced thousands of its civilians, left many with hacked-off limbs and children forced to become rebel soldiers. Now, a new report indicates an extraordinary rate of sexual violence against women and girls.

Rape Victim Musa, 18

(WOMENSENEWS)-Sierra Leonean women caught in their country's civil war have suffered staggering rates of rape and other sexual violence, according to a recent report by a human rights group. The report suggests that as many as 257,000 women and girls in Sierra Leone have been affected by such abuses.

Physicians for Human Rights says 9 percent of women and girls surveyed reported some form of war-related sexual violence, as did 13 percent of households overall. The organization is the first to document the prevalence of sexual violence during the last 10 years of the country's civil conflict.

The document, which was released last month, is unusual in that it offers quantitative data that can be extrapolated to Sierra Leone's larger population, said Chen Reis, a senior research associate for the organization and the lead author of the report. Investigations into human rights abuses traditionally involve the use of qualitative data, often in the form of testimonies.

The overwhelming percentage of abuses appeared to have come at the hands of the Revolutionary United Front, which joined a campaign against the Sierra Leonean government in 1991 that had been fought on and off for several years before. Over the next 10 years, this rebel force was responsible for amputations, abductions and the forced conscription of child soldiers.

The report indicated that 53 percent of those surveyed who had contact with the Revolutionary United Front experienced sexual violence. But 6 percent of the respondents experienced such violence by other forces.

The report said 89 percent of those who reported sexual violence were raped; 37 percent were forced to undress; 33 percent were gang-raped; the same percentage were kidnapped; and 15 percent were forced into sexual slavery. In addition, 14 percent reported being molested; 9 percent reported being forced into marriage and 4 percent reported having foreign objects inserted into their genitals or anus. It added that 23 percent of women reporting such abuses were pregnant at the time of the incidents.

On Jan. 16, the Sierra Leonean government signed an agreement with the United Nations designating a special court to prosecute those responsible for violations of international law, and a U.N. Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also being developed to create a historical record of the war. Despite the signing of a peace agreement in 1999, sporadic violence and attacks on civilians by the rebels continued into 2001 and the United Nations is still disarming soldiers there.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence during war now constitute war crimes and also can be considered crimes against humanity when they are committed as widespread or systematic attacks against civilians. But prosecution of such crimes has begun only recently, in trials for the wars in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

Sierra Leone Experience Similar to Other War-Torn Lands

Sandra Krause, director of the reproductive health project at the nonprofit Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, said the findings reflect the universal threats faced by women and girls during war, in which rape is often used as a weapon. While there is little hard data on the rates of sexual- and gender-based violence in other war-torn countries, Krause said the data in the Sierra Leone report “doesn't strike me at all as exceptional. It is more typical, and, if anything, there's underreporting because women are reluctant to come forward in these types of settings.”

Only 23 percent of women who reported abuse said they would be willing to give their names to international courts that could prosecute the crimes. The report notes that while 80 percent of women believe their rights should be protected by the law, half said their husbands had the right to beat them or have sex with them even if they didn't want to, suggesting that the rates of sexual violence over a Sierra Leonean woman's lifetime may be far higher than Physicians for Human Rights was able to document, Reis said. While up to 64,000 women and girls experienced sexual violence during the war, if non-war-related abuses are factored in, as many as 257,000 may have been affected by sexual violence, the report said.

The Sierra Leonean women who did speak up, though, told investigators chilling stories.

“I was a virgin before, they ruined me,” said Isata, a 15-year-old, identified in the report only by her first name. “I was at home when they came and kidnapped me . . . 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,” she said. “I was bleeding from my vagina. That night, God gave me strength to walk.

“Since I got back, I have been so sick. I never used to get sick like this,” the girl said. “I would like to go back to school, but I can't concentrate anymore. I can't do anything.”

Sierra Leone May Be Not Be Unusual

Krause, whose organization develops resources on protecting refugee women and responding to humanitarian crises, said that what happened to those in Sierra Leone reflects the danger women face during war, regardless of where the conflict is being fought.

“We know that women are at risk before they flee during the conflict, and while they are fleeing they're at risk, and as they settle in a refugee camp they're at risk,” Krause said.

The common elements that endanger women, Krause said, are the exposure to armed men, such as soldiers, militia and border guards, and the lack of safe access to basic means of survival such as food and water.

Reis of Physicians for Human Rights said what has become of the perpetrators remains an open question.

“Chances are that we'll never know,” she said. “I suppose we'll have to wait and see what happens with the special court and Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That's where some of these stories are likely to come out.”

Jordan Lite is the assistant managing editor of Women's Enews.

On our Website today:

Photo from PHR Sierra Leone Photos Gallery:Musa, 18, was abducted by the Revolutionary United Front during the January 1999 incursion into Freetown. After enduring rapes, beatings, walking long distances with heavy loads, foraging for food and having RUF soldiers cut into her chest with a knife, she escaped when she was five months pregnant. She is pictured with her 4-month-old daughter in May 2000.

For more information:

Physicians for Human Rights
“War-Related Sexual Violence in Sierra Leone”:

Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children:

Truth and Reconciliation Commission-Sierra Leone Web: