By Allieu Sahid Tunkara
Sierra Leone Police (SLP) Crime Statistics, 2019 puts the figure of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) at over 12,000.
The said figure is official meaning only those that were reported went into the statistics while those unreported were not accounted for.
It is a tacit acceptance that Sierra Leone is still hunted by the horrific incidents of SGBV especially sexual violence.
The recent, alleged murder of a five year-old linked to sexual violence and other SGBV-related deaths stand as glowing testimonies about the continuing problem of sexual violence.
A number of public education campaigns have taken place, a lot of strategies adopted, laws reviewed and severe punishment for the crime prescribed but the problem remains.
Three of the most notable strategies quite recently were the proclamation of a state of public emergency by President Julius Maada Bio, the launch of the ‘Hands off Our Girls’ by Her Excellency, Fatima Bio and the review of the Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
The proclamation of a state of emergency on Sexual violence is a sure way of drawing the attention of the country and the international community to spiraling incidents of sexual violence as well as that of the international community for a comprehensive roadmap to nip the crime in the bud.
However, the state of emergency suffered an instant and insistent public backlash making it difficult to generate the attention it required.
On the contrary, the ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign gained some momentum evidenced by the hands lent to it by several West African first ladies.
The campaign, after its launching, was taken to several communities in Sierra Leone by Mrs. Fatima Bio to explain why society should not tolerate and compromise sexual violence in their communities.
The campaign initially seemed to have yielded dividends as many Sierra Leoneans helped to popularise it in various communities in Sierra Leone.
The Hands Off Our Girls campaign was closely followed by the review of the Sexual Offences Act 2012 seen in the promulgation of the Sexual Offences Amendment Act, 2019.
The amendment makes severe the punishment for sexual violence as it provides for a maximum punishment of up to life imprisonment for a convict especially where aggravating factors outweigh mitigating factors.
By the severity of the penalty of sexual violence, it is safe to say the framers of the law had the intention of deterring would-be offenders in light of the lengthy jail term.
However, despite the strategies pursued by government, sex criminals have not been deterred.
The persistence of sexual violence has been linked to complex issues in the campaign against the crime which the authorities have not looked at.
Mr Mohamed Bangura is a social worker of good years standing in the field of Social work and has signed contracts with a number of local and international non-governmental organisations in the sphere of child protection.
In a recent interview, Bangura outlined critical factors affecting the campaign against sexual violence in Sierra Leone.
The first area Bangura pointed out is the absence of strong and effective parenting and guardianship.
He pointed out several instances and incidents which litter the streets of Freetown.
Most prominent of these examples is hawking of goods by under-aged girls some times in slum and isolated communities in Freetown.
“Considering their ages, the level of maturity is not there to think critically about where to go or where not to go,” he said.
As the syndrome continues unchecked, the potential for the girls to raped or sexually penetrated is very high.
The strategy advanced by Bangura is very much synonymous with Operations ‘Dawn’ and ‘Dusk’ which were strategies meant to curtail incidents of sexual violence in communities.
The ‘Dawn’ strategy was meant to take under-age girls off the streets by stopping them from selling while the ‘Dusk’ model was to stop girls frequenting pubs, cinemas, night clubs at night where the potential for sexual abuse is very high.
These two strategies were also bolstered by the Freetown City Council bye-laws which prescribe fines for parents who expose their children to street trading.
The enforcement of the two FSU strategies and the bye-laws was thwarted by the outbreak of Ebola Virus in May, 2014.
The FSU and FCC strategies failed to materialise even when Ebola subsided as government and people grapples with new ways for livelihood as they reel of the effects of the virus.
Bangura also does not lose sight of the existence of brothels owned and run by pimps as one of principal factors that nurture sexual violence in Sierra Leone.
He strongly argues that it will be difficult to contain the act of sexual violence if houses of prostitution continue to exist on the streets.
Brothels, he says are very much visible in the east, central as well as West of Freetown.
“Brothel at Lumley in the west, a brothel at Victoria Park central Freetown and a brothel at Texaco Junction in the east are just few examples of the sprawling number of brothels in Freetown,” he said.
Slum communities, Bangura says, have a fair share of brothels with Susan’s Bay being the most prominent.
He said the most dangerous thing about the brothels is the presence of under-age girls who offered sex services to men for money.
The sex trade is seen by many under-age girls as a means of livelihood as well as a pleasure.
“How can government succeed in stamping out sexual violence when under-age girls are in brothels?” Bangura wondered.
He suggested that the most fundamental starting point in the campaign against sexual violence by government is to shut down slums and stop under-age girls from hawking goods.
It will not be an easy ride for government as parents and guardians would say where they would get money to take care of homes if children do not sell.
But the answer lies in a choice between saving the lives and pride of girls and exposing them to sexual abuse for today’s gain.
As Bangura points out complex issues in the campaign against sexual violence, he made clear that pimps as well as cinema and pubs owners and operators must be challenged not to allow under-age girls in.
Another complex issue that was not mentioned by Bangura that frustrate the campaign against sexual violence is under-age registration to vote in elections.
Most under-age girls in Freetown and in the provinces possess voter identity cards they use to unnecessary stifle the course of justice especially in a situation where parents want to collude with accused persons and compromise matters.
It happened quite recently in the southern town of Serabu where an under-age girl, through the use of a voter ID card, considerably undermined a police investigation into a sexual abuse allegedly committed on her by a hospital staff.
She was pregnant at that time and her looks apparently portrays her as a juvenile. The School report card also indicates her age as 16, but the voter ID card carries more weight in the face of the law.
The case was rejected outright by the police, and the suspect was similarly released.
The same case occurred in 2004 in the southern town of Gbondapi village in Pujehun district where a headmaster of a primary school allegedly penetrated a pupil resulting into pregnancy.
The headmaster was arrested, investigated and remanded at Pujehun Correctional centre.
The accused was acquitted and discharged when it became clear that victim registered and voted as an under-age girl.
In light of the foregoing circumstances, it goes without saying that government must not only pay attention to Macro issues on the campaign against SGBV but also micro issues.