Sierra Leone: Seeking Justice For Rape Survivors

Investigation reveals that many women and girls never inform the authorities.

Sierra Leone: Seeking Justice For Rape Survivors

Investigation reveals that many women and girls never inform the authorities.

Sierra Leonian women buy and sell goods in a Freetown market. (Photo: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images)
Sierra Leonian women buy and sell goods in a Freetown market. (Photo: Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images)

Large numbers of rape cases, especially of minors, are going unreported in Sierra Leone, with few survivors of sexual violence willing or able to approach the authorities.

Many families are deterred from pursuing legal cases by social stigma, a lack of faith in the justice system and an inability to afford legal representation or even transport costs to the court.

Instead, people turn to traditional justice mechanisms following such cases of abuse.

Sitting in a makeshift hut in her home village of Towama in Bo province, Saffie Kay (not her real name) wept as she related how her uncle had raped her.

She said she would never get justice for the attack. Issues of family honour meant that the issue had been dealt with through arbitration.

“My dad did not want to involve the police, so that my future would not be affected,” Saffie said.

Under Sierra Leonean law, rape carries a prison sentence of a minimum of five and a maximum of 15 years.

Although there is a legal and investigative infrastructure in place that in theory supports victims and ensures justice, in practice this process often does not work.

After a rape is reported and basic evidence collected, the complainant is referred to the local Rainbow Clinic, state centres that treat victims of sexual abuse and are supported by the International Rescue Committee of the Red Cross.

A case is then opened and statements taken before court proceedings are initiated.

Attacks against those under the age of 18, the age of consent in Sierra Leone, are prosecuted as sexual penetration. The crime of rape is applied to only those cases where the victim is aged over 18. The penalties are the same in either instance.

The cases are then sent to a magistrate’s court for preliminary investigation and then committed to a High Court for further investigation, sentence and discharge.

Rita Kamara is the administrative officer of the Family Support Unit (FSU) the police division that deals with cases of sexual abuse, in the capital Freetown.

“We conduct preliminary investigations into cases of rape and sexual penetration by obtaining a statement from the victim and then preparing a medical report for one of our line partners, the Rainbow medical clinic, before we continue further investigation against the perpetrator,” Kamara said.

 “As a unit, we are doing all we can to ensure that justice is given to the victims, after the medical reports are received from the Rainbow medical clinic. The medical reports help us to conclude our investigations before the files are taken to the director of public prosecution to peruse them and make recommendations on the report,” Kamara added.

Abortion is banned in Sierra Leone, and Theresa Vibbie, the Paramount Chief of Kenema’s Kandu Lekpeyama chiefdom, said that some rape survivors were forced to seek illegal procedures. These were often botched, leading to long-term health problems.

Rape survivors who do not report their cases and gain access to appropriate treatment also risk severe health complications including sexually transmitted disease.

In Kenema, Patrick, the father of a young girl who was raped, said that his daughter had suffered appalling physical consequences.

“My six-year-old daughter was raped; she developed horrific complications including a fistula and was hospitalised for almost about three months, and the case took five months before it was concluded at the High Court in Kenema, where the rapist was sentenced to eight years,” he said.


Sandialu, a remote village in the west of Kenema district, is a tight-knit community where most marriages take place within extended families. This means that cultural sensitivities make reporting cases of sexual abuse even more difficult. 

Jamatu Ansumana (not her real name) was assaulted two years ago aged 14 by a 39-year-old man as she walked to the family farm after school. Now 16, Ansumana recalled that the man threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the rape.

“It was a bitter day for me, as I was still a virgin and felt so much pain,” she said.

After the rape, she got dressed and continued on to the farm where her parents were already working. Despite being in extreme pain, she decided not to tell them about what had happened to her.

A week later, she finally confided in her mother who advised her not to tell her father or anyone else about what had happened.

“There was a similar case with our neighbour’s daughter who was treated unfairly at the police station, by the community and by the magistrate,” Her said, adding that that girl had become pregnant as a result of the rape and subsequently died after seeking a backstreet abortion.

Ansumana’s mother, Sombo Jaward, said that she feared the police and local leaders would derail any investigation even if she and her daughter reported the rape.

“I started treating her with traditional medicinal herbs to help her recover from the pain and I did not report this issue because I don’t have money to pursue the case, to pay transport from here to Kenema or to even hire the services of a lawyer,” she said.

Jaward said that she knew of four cases of sexual violence in which the complainants finally abandoned legal proceedings because of the social stigma as well as endless delays in the judicial procedures.

After two months, when Ansumana could no longer bear living in the same village as the perpetrator, she moved to live with her aunt. Ansumana also kept the assault secret from her.

“At times I do get flashbacks about the day I was raped and this incident contributed greatly to me dropping out from school when I was 14 years old. I will never in my life forgive that man who raped me,” she said.


The 2014 National Crime Statistics recorded 77 cases of rape and 2,124 of sexual penetration.

There is no national data available for 2015 due to the Ebola epidemic, although some statistics were collected on a provincial basis.

For instance in Kenema, FSU data collection officer Gbondo Morison Aruna said that 14 instances of rape had been reported locally in 2015.

Of these, five were prosecuted and the perpetrators are currently serving prison terms of seven years each. Four other cases collapsed due to a lack of prosecution witnesses while another three were abandoned by the complainants. Two men are still in remand while their cases proceed at the Kenema high court.

However, Aruna emphasised that many cases of rape were never brought to the attention of the authorities.

“The major reason why people fail to report rape is that the vast majority of cases were resolved by traditional justice mechanisms by negotiating with both the victim’s parents and the perpetrators, either by paying money or other means,” he said.

Ordinary people were put off by the slow nature of the court system in Sierra Leone, Aruna explained, and preferred to find solutions themselves.

However, he explained that lengthy preparation was often necessary to avoid the case being thrown out of court. Many people were reluctant to provide the police with information, especially when this meant they might be called as a witness.

This further delayed proceedings, he continued.

“We always have a problem with the issue of witnesses, but if all the evidence needed are available and the perpetrator is arrested, it will only take us 24 hours to present the matter to the court,” he said.

Kenema FSU manager Matty Tarawallie agreed that the police were only informed as a last resort.

 “No crime is taken to the police without first informing local leaders and heavy fines are levied on those who fail to comply with societal or customary practice. This is not only inefficient and corrupt but also risks destroying the victim’s health.”

Dafie Benya, the Paramount Chief of Kenema’s Small Bo Chiefdom, argued that people often turned to traditional justice processes because the legal system seemed to favour the perpetrator over the victim.

Convicted rapists sometimes only served five to eight months of their prison sentence before they were released back into the community, he continued.

“Victims and parents often abandon the case after they attend court more than three to four times, with frequent adjournments, as a lot of money will be spent on transportation to attend court with no positive result. Many will decide to abandon the case,” he added.

Aruna emphasised that his force would not agree to criminal cases being resolved through mediation, citing section 12 in the domestic violence act of 2007, which states that only the magistrate’s court can investigate such cases.

And most cases taken to court were won by the prosecution, he added.

“The cases we lose in court are mostly as a result of the people themselves failing to make a follow-up visit to court to give evidence. Witnesses don’t show up and such cases are always thrown out of court for lack of evidence,” Aruna said.

An FSU officer from Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city, said that victims were often unwilling to pursue formal cases and preferred to turn to local chiefs for arbitration.

 “You cannot prosecute a case when the principal witness is not prepared to give evidence...” said the officer, who asked to remain anonymous. “At times, even when some of them do make statement to police and a medical report is issued, they do not return with the signed reports.”

Jamir Dumbuya, who works at Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equal Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS), agreed.

“The police use whatever investigation and statement they get from the victim to take the perpetrator to court, [but] in some cases the victims do not appear to prosecute the alleged perpetrator,” he said.

Dumbuya said that a dedicated forensic expert would be a major help in successfully pursuing cases. Although there are some forensic specialists working within the justice system, there were none who specialise in cases of sexual violence.

In turn, some victims and their families have accused police officers or prosecutors of taking bribes from the accused in return for endlessly delaying the justice process.

Mary Conteh is the founder of the Women’s Centre for Good Governance and Human Rights (WOCEGAR) in Makeni, the largest city in Sierra Leone’s Northern Province. 

“Our own opinion about some of these cases is that are not properly investigated due to interference by the prosecution using money or political affiliation,” she said.

Kenema FSU’s Tarawallie strenuously denied such allegations.

He said that the FSU was professional and well-trained and did not engage in any such practice, noting that they also came under the scrutiny of the Anti-Corruption Commission, a regulatory police body.

Aruna added that it was often the families that were willing to accept payment in return for dropping charges, he added.

“Parents of victims have been known to ask for a ransom of around Le500,000 (130 US dollars) from the accused persons so as to drop the case… rapists comply in order to avoid a potential jail sentence of a minimum of five and a maximum of 15 years, according to the judge’s discretion,” Aruna said.


Alhaji Osman Smith is a gynecologist who works at the Kenema Government Hospital and heads the Rainbow Centre. He said that he saw about six rape cases  a year In which the victims suffered severe medical complications that could lead to life-long disability and even death.

Smith added that victims needed to seek immediate treatment to avoid such long-term effects. Many of these patients had contracted a sexually transmitted disease in the course of their ordeal and most went on to develop mental health issues. Some had clearly been subject to a lengthy period of abuse.

“I encountered clear cases of sexual violence against women, children and minors in which parents or family members were unwilling to explain what had happened to the patients,” he continued.

“During examinations, I found that some victims had been sexually abused for a long time. Some parents refused to answer, but many confessed and accepted the fact that my patient had been raped or molested,” he said.

While doctors have the right to report such incidents, they have to follow community protocols and first contact the local authorities who then make the decision as to whether to pass the case to the police.

Smith explained that parents often told him that they could not report such assaults for fear of social stigma and the lack of money to pursue a legal case.       

But Jeneba Koroma, assistant director of the ministry of social welfare, gender and children’s affairs, said that she believed more victims of sexual abuse were coming forward.

She said that her department, together with other partners, was trying to raise funds for victims of gender violence in the Kenema district.

The aim was “to aid and fast track the cases of victims of reported rape and this will also help encourage people to report their cases to the appropriate authorities,” she continued.

But Aruna said that the whole justice process was so fraught with difficulties that they needed help from both local and international NGOs to help it work more efficiently.

Others called for sentences to be increased as a deterrence measure.

 “Courts need to be resolute in such cases and sentences need to be severe to deter reoffending,” said Augustine Sannoh, the chairman of Kenema’s civil society coalition.

Kamara, of the Freetown FSU, also argued that a sentence of between five and 15 years in prison was not enough. 

“The penalty should be life imprisonment because of the stigma on the victim [which] causes some of them to shy away from prosecution,” she said.

But Benya, from Kenema’s Small Bo Chiefdom, said that legislation alone was no use without an accompanying support structure.

Ordinary people felt they had little choice but to try and resolve cases of sexual violence extra-judicially, he said, adding, “The laws are in place, but the system to help them is not put in place.”

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