By Allieu Sahid Tunkara
Operations ‘Dawn and Dusk’ were simultaneously announced sometime in 2014 by the former head of the Sierra Leone Police Family Support Unit (FSU), Chief Superintendent of Police, Mira Koroma.
CSP Koroma is no longer there. She now sits as head of Operations Planning and Policy Department, a unit that coordinates police operations countrywide.
Operation Dawn was launched to get children of school ages out of the streets especially those who hawk goods from one place to another.
The former head of FSU was of the view that time spent on the streets is better spent in classrooms.
Similarly, ‘Operation Dusk’ was meant to take children away from night clubs, pubs, bars and restaurants at night where sexual abuse of children is high.
Both operations are tools to fight sexual and gender-based violence, a vice that is badly smearing the image of Sierra Leone.
It goes without saying that child hawkers and loiterers are prone to sexual violence by rapists, paedophiles and even pimps.
The two FSU strategies were supported by Freetown City Council (FCC) bye-laws during the tenure of former Mayor, Bode Gibson.
The bye-laws include a fine of a reasonable amount for any child caught on the street with a tray on their heads during school hours.
The Metropolitan Police Agency was mandated to enforce the bye-laws in accordance with FCC overall strategy of child protection.
The pronouncement of the bye-laws was a major boost to the two operations that seek to ensure that children are safe from sexual violence.
Operations Dusk and Dawn were potent but their implementation was thwarted by the outbreak of Ebola Virus in May, 2014.
It is no gainsaying that most of the children hawking on the streets are those trafficked from the provinces to the country’s capital.
The children are most times exposed to street trading from dawn to dusk to make ends meet at home.
In their move to make good sales for the day, they are not hesitant to tread on heartlands of reckless commercial motorists and drivers.
These children are brought to the city by their uncles, aunts and other near relatives the same way international traffickers traffick people to different parts of the world.
In 2015, Don Bosco, a local charitable organisation reported that out of a survey they conducted in 2015, they were able to track down 50,000 children on the streets.
The common ploy employed by the internal traffickers is meeting the parents of children and assure them of the beauties and luxuries of the city.
Attending good schools, exposure to opportunities abroad, decent housing and good medical facilities among others were the prominent promises.
The parents convinced of the beauty of the promises, part with their children who stay with their aunts and uncles.
They are exposed to sweat shops immediately they are brought to Freetown. Street trading is the most common.
Street trading occurs under the watchful eyes of the authorities, but simply take no action to contain it.
Currently, Abacha Street, ECOWAS, PZ and other streets in the city are littered with children who hawk goods along congested traffic.
Threats of physical abuse by guardians in unfortunate events children lose proceeds of sales or return home with the goods in the case of perishable ones keeps children almost all night on the streets.
Since the transporting of children in Freetown goes unchecked and the hawking of goods continues, incidents of sexual violence would be hardly curtailed.
The Sierra Leone Police Crime Statistics report of 2019 put the figure of SGBV at over 12,000. The figure is a compilation of those reported.
The unreported abuses are not accounted for as crime will be a crime only when reported or detected by appropriate authorities.
In the midst of uncontrollably swelling population of children in Freetown and urban centres, sexual violence is rampant.
The alarming occurrence of rape and sexual violence in the country traced its root to the war period when women and girls were targeted by all warring factions for abuse of different forms.
The Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report of 2002 made mention of the brutal manner in which women and girls were brutally gang raped and sexually penetrated by combatants.
Reparations, compensations and rehabilitation in the form of psycho-social counselling were recommended by the TRC for victims of sexual violence.
Measures of restoring the dignity of the sexually abused women and GIRLS were also recommended.
However, Sierra Leone started to fail in the campaign against sexual violence when measures recommended by the TRC were taken with a pinch of salt.
Today, society is being confronted by a devastating vice of abuse of women and girls.
However, Sierra Leone made some effort in response to TRC recommendations evidenced by the establishment of the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) in 2003 today known as the FSU.
The DVU was initially set up at the Kissy Divisional headquarters in Freetown-East region as a pilot project to assess the relevance of the unit to the fight against sexual violence.
The results the unit produced made a strong case for its retention and eventual transformation into the FSU to make it effective and efficient.
When FSU came into being, services of competent investigators in the Criminal investigation Department were employed.
The legal framework for prosecution of sexual offences and other forms of domestic violence was virtually insufficient.
The investigators rely purely on the age-old Offences Against the Persons Act of 1861, the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act of 1960 and other scant and scattered laws.
Respite was brought to the investigation of SGBV crimes when the three gender laws namely: the Domestic Violence Act, the Devolution of Estate Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act were passed into law in 2007.
But, the passage of the Sexual Offences Act of 2012 amended in 2019 made the most significant impact.
Since the setting up of the unit, much has not been achieved in the convictions of the crimes.
Signs are clear that FSU is constrained with the investigation of a swelling number of SGBV matters in a society where police receive little public acceptance, cooperation and support.
Considering the alarming rate at which incidents of sexual violence occur in the country, a new unit has been created by FSU known as the Sexual Assault Syndicate, SAS for short.
SAS is charged with the responsibility of solely investigating sexual violence reported by either victims or parents and guardians.
The creation of SAS is just one step in the investigation and prosecution of sexual crimes.
FSU investigators, from time immemorial, are confronted with logistical challenge that seriously derails the quality of their investigations.
Convictions are hard to secure with weak evidence adduced against accused persons represented by seasoned criminal lawyers.
The poor quality of investigations is always a recipe for suspected perpetrators to walk free from the claws of the law.
Training of police officers, state counsels and magistrates have been held by experts to sharpen their knowledge on the handling of sexual violence issues.
The training is hoped to create a positive turn-around in the occurrence of incidents of rape and sexual penetration.
As the crime of sexual violence rears its head, Office of First Lady remains in constant touch with the FSU’s across the country to get first-hand information about their constraints.
What appears another key strategy to combat sexual violence has been the call for the removal of FSU from mainstream policing.
Sierra Leonean public is strongly convinced that the operational effectiveness of FSU’s across the country could be enhanced if it stands as an independent entity.
The comparison has always been made between a proposed independent FSU to that of the country’s anti-graft agency, the Anti-Corruption Commission.
The notion behind the repeated call for the removal of FSU is that some police personnel are perpetrators of sex crimes.
The United States Human Rights Report of 2019 and the Trafficking in Persons Report also of 2019 made references to police involvement in sexual assault.
The reports insinuate that most of the offences are swept under the carpet because FSU is part and parcel of SLP and subjected to the same command and control structure like any other police unit.