African News

Sierra Leone: Rising rape incidents and the vulnerability of women in public spaces

12 September 2015 at 10:40 | 2189 views

Commentary

By Mariama Kandeh, London, UK.

On Saturday the 15th of August 2015, a 17 year old commercial sex worker Hannah Bockarie was brutally raped and murdered at Sierra Leone’s most popular beach; the Lumley beach in Freetown.

While investigations are ongoing, a group of civil society activists and other women’s organisations in the country headed by Power Women 232, an organisation working to protect the rights and ensure the advancement of women in Sierra Leone held a vigil on Thursday 20th August to remember the rape victim and called on the government to render justice to the deceased and protect women in the country. The protest went along with the campaign #WeAreAllHannah.

The whole issue surrounding Hannah’s brutal murder sparked debates over the status of women in Sierra Leone. Firstly, it displays the vulnerability of Sierra Leonean women and girls in public spaces. Secondly it highlights the need to teach boys to respect girls. But most importantly it ignites some of the flashbacks of our country eleven-year war that witnessed widespread rape and murder of women and girls across the country.

Public spaces in Sierra Leone and in many other parts of the world have been made a war zone for women and girls. This is seen in the high number of sexual harassments women and girls face in these spaces.

For instance, the Kenyan woman attacked on 7th November 2014 for wearing a mini skirt leading to the #Mydress MyChoice campaign. An Al Jazeera report described the video as taken at a bus stop, the woman is seen surrounded by men who stripped her naked and assaulted her for allegedly dressing improperly.

In February 2013, authorities in Namibia attempted to ban miniskirts leading to the arrest of 40 women after police claimed they wore revealing clothes.

In other parts of the world, there have been reports of widespread gang raping of women, for instaance in India, Pakistan and Mexico, while reports of sexual abuse of women in the West are also common. For instance just this September seven men in Britain were sentenced for the rape and abuse of babies in the UK. Obviously, incidents like these have nonetheless showed the growing vulnerability of women and girls.

In Sierra Leone, attacking women in public spaces is a common practice, especially when they (men) believe the women have not dressed ‘appropriately’. It is common to see a group of people including women shouting and embarrassing a woman whose dress code does not tally with the social norms of Sierra Leone.

Hannah’s rape led to a serious debate over commercial sex work and the risk of rape. Some Sierra Leoneans have been arguing that Hannah’s choice of profession put her in a risky position leading to her fate. While such stance may not be unconnected to cultural norms that demonize commercial sex work, her choice of career must not warrant the kind of humiliation meted out to her. We choose our career and no one should abuse our choice of trade. On her death, a very graphic picture of her at the scene of the crime was being circulated on social media without any respect for the deceased. This also shows how extremely vulnerable we as people of this world have become, due to the abuse of digital technology.

Meanwhile, what is required in Sierra Leone and other African countries is the implementation of laws protecting women and girls and the severity of punishment for the violation of the rights of women. As things stand, it is as if the laws are only meant for dusty shelves. In Sierra Leone, even though the Sexual Offenses Act of 2012 has increased the punishment for rape from two years to up to 15 years, prosecutions have been few and far between. Normally rape and other sexual violence matters are not treated with the level of seriousness they deserve. Justice delayed is justice denied. How long should victims wait for such matters of grave importance to be concluded in court?

Apparently, rape victims in Sierra Leone do not normally come forward for fear of repercussion from their perpetrators or public shaming. Moreover, cultural norms that stigmatise victims of sexual assault make it hard for victims to reveal they have been raped. Sometimes the stigma comes from family members who blame them for being raped. This became evident in the two recent popular rape matters in Sierra Leone. Stigmatization and blame were popular on social media among some Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad.

Others have blamed women’s dress patterns as attracting men and consequently causing the rape. However, reports of rape in a modest culture wherein women wear veils have been exposed by two popular Somali writers and activists. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Waris Dirie have both unveiled how women in their culture are raped and blamed for being raped. Thus it begs the question whether women’s dress code influence the spate of rape incidents. To the best of my knowledge I will submit that Sierra Leonean women and girls normally dress modestly. But even if they don’t must that call for a sexual attack on them?

A post-mortem report released on Saturday confirmed Hannah’s alleged rape. She suffered a fractured skull, brain haemorrhage, glued eyes, broken arm in multiple places and damaged spinal cord. How could her attacker/s be so callous? Why should she be the target of such a barbaric attack? Why was her eyes glued? These questions keep resonating with me as I think of the deceased. Is this just a matter of rape, sex or power?

Following Hannah’s allegedly rape and murder there have been about two unconfirmed rape and murder incidents across Sierra Leone; one in Kono district and another in Kailahun. In one instance women in Kailahun have called for a district wide demonstration after a 10-year old girl was allegedly raped by four boys. But why must a 10 year old girl be the subject of any man or men’s sexual desire?

Rape extends far and beyond just the desire to have sex with a woman. It is a desire to exert control, show power, strength and supremacy. In short, rape in Sierra Leone is a show of male supremacy and evidence of our country’s patriarchal social structure.

Sierra Leone is signatory to the CEDAW and other international instruments geared towards protecting the rights of women and girls. However, implementation has been weak. Sadly, the Ebola outbreak worsens the vulnerability of women in Sierra Leone.

According to Humanist Watch Salone, police report shows a total of 2,201 reported sexual assaults in 2014, a rise from 1,485 in 2013. The report further shows that most of the rape incidents occurr at public spaces, such as markets and open fields.

This reveals the level of vulnerability of women in Sierra Leone who found themselves in these spaces. Rape is robbery. When a woman is raped, her dignity, self esteem and prestige as a human being and a woman are stolen from her. That is why I don’t expect any sane human being to support rape whether impliedly or directly.

#WeAreAllHannah
#NousSommesHannah
#WeAllNaHannah
#IAmHannah
#JeSuisHannah
#MeNaHannah

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