WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Sierra Leone (2012)
Sierra Leone’s civil war began in 1991, spanned 11 years, and left hundreds of thousands displaced and more than 50,000 dead. Yet the toll for women and girls was much higher than the war dead: Physicians for Human Rights estimates that during the conflict, between 215,000 and 257,000 of them were subjected to sexualized violence.
Thirty years earlier, in 1961, the nation had won independence from the United Kingdom and was being ruled by the All People’s Congress (APC), a government dominated by the Temne and Limba ethnic groups. According to Human Rights Watch, “corruption, nepotism, and fiscal mismanagement under the one-party rule of the APC led to the decay of all state institutions and the impoverishment of Sierra Leone’s population”—despite the country’s great wealth of diamonds, gold, and other minerals. In 1984, a group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) formed with the aim of overthrowing the APC. Its invasion of Sierra Leone from Liberia in early 1991 triggered the civil war. As Human Rights Watch describes in its chilling report “‘We’ll Kill You if You Cry’: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict,” the RUF’s goal of saving Sierra Leone from the corrupt APC regime “quickly degenerated into a campaign of violence whose principal aim was to gain access to the country’s abundant diamond mines.” The rebels killed thousands of civilians, subjected many to horrors such as limb amputation, and forced many to join the RUF. They burned whole neighborhoods and they attacked thousands of women of all ages, ethnicities, and classes. Kaz de Jong, a mental health care specialist at Médecins Sans Frontières and one of the authors of the organization’s report “Assessing Trauma in Sierra Leone,” told WMC’s Women Under Siege that there is no doubt sexualized violence was rampant. “It was done everywhere,” said de Jong. “In the jungle, in front of husbands and children, in the marketplace.”
According to the findings of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The main armed groups accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women and girls during the conflict were the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and the Westside Boys.” Dara Kay Cohen, an assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who has done in-depth research on sexualized violence in Sierra Leone, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that although the RUF are widely considered the biggest perpetrators, pro-government forces also raped and sexually violated civilians.
After intervention by world leaders, a 1999 peace agreement was signed in order to promote negotiations between the RUF and the government. Yet fighting, and attacks on women, continued.
In November 2000, the rebels and the government signed a ceasefire ensuring that both parties would begin disarming and that all child combatants and abductees would be released. On January 18, 2002, the civil war was officially declared over. However, sexualized violence continues in Sierra Leone post-conflict. A number of abducted women remain with the rebel commanders who took them as so-called “bush wives.” In an interview with WMC’s Women Under Siege, Chris Coulter, author of Bush Wives and Girl Soldiers, noted that it is difficult to discern to what level this was consensual.
“Many women found that they could not return home,” Coulter explained. They were no longer welcome as they had been away for many years and had children to the commanders; some were in loving relationships. Coulter said it is extremely difficult to assess the nature of these relationships because often only the first rape or “virgination” of a girl in Sierra Leone is traditionally understood as rape—whereas, after that, nonconsensual sex is widely considered acceptable behavior.
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