Read, Debate: Engage.

Well meant, not always well done

February 25, 2019
topic:Women's rights
tags:#sexual violence, #Sierra Leone, #"Sexual Offenses Act" (SOA), #human rights, #Africa, #women's rights
located:Sierra Leone
by:Frank Odenthal
In Sierra Leone, there are laws protecting young women and girls from sexual violence. Some of these laws have unintended consequences. FairPlanet spoke to German researcher Luisa Schneider, who gave some insights from her fieldwork in West Africa.

FairPlanet: Luisa Schneider, you‘ve been dealing with sexual violence against women and girls in Sierra Leone. What exactly did you investigate?

Luisa Schneider: I am an anthropologist and I work at the Max Planck Institute for Law and Anthropology in Halle. Since 2011, I conduct research in Sierra Leone where I focus on violence against women and girls, intimate partner violence, and sexual and gender-based violence. For my doctorate at the University of Oxford, I spent 13 months in Freetown the capital city of Sierra Leone. There, I combined analysis of top-down and bottom-up approaches to violence prevention and response. I was interested in examining the relationship between legal and policy-based approaches to violence prevention and response and local understandings of violence in and outside of intimate relationships. I asked what forms of violence are locally identified, and which response mechanisms exist at interpersonal, family, community and state levels. To answer these questions, I did research in households and communities to understand how they mediate and punish violence. This was important to me because cases which are not reported to the police often disappear from statistics and conversations.

Through long-term research, I uncovered how such institutions interpret and respond to violence and how those directly affected perceive and negotiate their experiences. Of course, I also wanted to know what happens when cases are reported to the police which is why I followed cases in police stations and courts. I also conducted research with men and boys convicted for sexual offences who are inmates at Pademba Road Prison. Of particular interest were institutions such as the Rainbow Centres, where women and girls who have been affected by violence receive primary medical and psychosocial care and where a medical report is issued which serves as the main piece of evidence during a potential court case.

Is the situation in Sierra Leone comparable to other countries or regions?

In recent years, many countries in West Africa and beyond identified reducing violence against women and girls as a main social and political goal. Additionally, post-conflict recovery provides an opportunity to improve legal and policy frameworks that address violence against women and girls. Countries which had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission after a violent conflict provided a public platform for survivors to speak about violent experiences. The voices of women and girls alongside men and boys brought issues around violence to the forefront of political discourse, and, not seldom let to the formulation of laws and regulations and to the upscaling of institutions which protect from violence and – at least theoretically – end impunity for perpetrators, as they did in Sierra Leone. These post-conflict processes let to advocacy and legal and policy dialogues globally. However, one issue has been that sometimes such well-intentioned global agendas are translated into laws that are enforced in a similar way in different countries without accounting for local diversity and particular challenges on the ground.

In Sierra Leone, the implementation and effectiveness of laws and service provisions is constrained by the scarcity of resources and personnel. Communication and cooperation between NGOs, service providers and response institutions are inefficient. As a result, policymakers do not benefit enough from the vast knowledge of local service providers and not-for-profit institutions. This can lead to the drafting of laws which fail to account for sociocultural factors on the ground and can have effects that are opposite to the intention of the laws.

What do the efforts in Sierra Leone look like?

In the post-conflict period, Sierra Leone passed a broad range of laws which criminalise sexual and gender-based violence and rape. Among the most consequential is the so-called "Sexual Offences Act" (SOA), which was passed in 2012. One of the purposes of the SOA was to increase the right to sexual self-determination to 18 years of age. Before, consensual sex was not punishable from the age of 14 years onwards.

At first glance, raising the minimum age sounds perfectly reasonable, at least if you are pursuing the goal of preventing teenage pregnancy or sexual violence. In Sierra Leone, one often sees older men in influential positions having relationships with very young girls from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. The abuse of power notwithstanding, it has been difficult to take a strong stance against such violence because, with a law which narrowly defined rape as physical force, the evidence that these coercive relationships fell under the category of rape was often lacking. However, with a higher age limit for legal sexual relationships, such contacts automatically become illegal. And the goal to better protect these young girls seems to be achieved.

That sounds like there is also a downside to that law...

As a result of the SOA, bystanders can make a report to the police. The reason behind this is to make reporting easier, foster social responsibility and take the sole burden of reporting away from the victim. However, the law also had a severe side effect. With all sexual relationships with and between minors being illegal, rape and consensual sex are treated in the same way. Legally it does not matter whether a 60-year-old man rapes a 13-year-old girl, or a 19-year-old boyfriend has consensual sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend. As a result, sexual agency became circumscribed. In such cases, where two young people with at least one of them being below 18 have consensual sex and attest to this at the courts, the boy will still be convicted and sent to prison.  And this practice is of course highly problematic. This marginalises young girls whose sexual behaviour is discussed at the courts and who must henceforth live with the stigma of having been involved in a sexual penetration case. What's more, the boyfriend may have to go to jail. If the girl fell pregnant, she must find a way to raise their child without the support of their partner who is now labelled a rapist.

How could it happen that such a fatal law could be passed?

Well, one question to be asked regards the law’s main aim. In today’s human rights landscape a tension can often be observed between individual autonomy and global human rights. Sometimes, personal autonomy is reduced or taken away in order to fulfil human rights goals. This seems to have happened in Sierra Leone with the sexual agency of young people. When assessing such laws, we must ask: Is the focus on the consequences of the law for the individual – the many young girls – whose safeguarding and empowerment was the proclaimed main goal; or should long-term goals, such as less violence, fewer pregnancies, etc., be achieved? So far, it seems that lawmakers were more interested in long-term goals. Otherwise, the numerous young boyfriends behind bars would have led to a review of the SOA. But that did not happen.

And who benefits from such a law?

Well, the law’s main intention is to prevent rape and it did decrease impunity for perpetrators. It also raised public awareness towards sexual abuse and made reporting much easier. However, many wealthy perpetrators still escape the law because they settle cases outside of the courts. Additionally, one should keep in mind that Sierra Leone is a country with a long history of foreign influence. The legacies of slavery and colonialism resonate in the political landscape of today. Although Sierra Leone has many resources it is an economically poor country that relies heavily on international funds. And there are certain global goals that receive a great deal of attention and support, such as human rights or the development goals of the United Nations. Topically, the empowerment of women and girls is a key issue, and so is the prevention of violence, the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases especially HIV as well as reintegration and peacebuilding after conflict.  Of course, these issues, are absolutely worth striving for, but it is also important to ask how exactly they are pursued. Sierra Leone puts great emphasis on these very concerns and many grassroots organisations have worked tirelessly on realising such goals. But at the same time, Sierra Leonean politicians try to reinvent the country in international eyes in today’s post-civil war, post-Ebola era, to recover its image as it were. I think what happened in Sierra Leone is that several issues, including the prevention of rape, the prevention of teenage pregnancy and early marriages and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases were tackled with one law. And this, in turn, had a severe impact on young people from already marginalised backgrounds because their love stories got caught in the crossfire between promoting girls’ education, combatting teenage pregnancy and preventing rape.

How could women and children in Sierra Leone be protected more sensibly, more sustainably?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Regarding the Sexual Offences Act in Sierra Leone, it would be sensible to include age categories in the law as many other countries do. For example, if one partner is 13-14, the other may not be older than 16, if one partner is between 15-16, the other may not be older than 18, if one partner is between 16-18, the other should not be over 21-years-old. In that way, you could prevent these young girls from being groomed by older adult men or showered with gifts and then coerced into sexual relationships. Additionally, the knowledge of local organisations and women’s rights groups who often have extensive experience is paramount. This is a sensitive issue, but I believe that safeguarding women and girls should never be attempted through partially silencing them. If you tell the girls that they cannot decide to have sex until they are 18, you are muting a problem, you are not solving it. Unhealthy and abusive relationships, as well as rape, must be stopped, not sex overall.

Girls and boys should be empowered to live healthy and safe relationships and to prevent STDs and pregnancies. They should not be stopped from having sexual relationships altogether. Because, the same way that desire can never be prevented, sex will never stop. If you prohibit sex you force people to do it secretly and create a culture of silence and stigma around sex. This will make it even harder for girls to access protection and to make empowered choices. Instead, open dialogues should be encouraged.

There is also a school ban for pregnant girls in Sierra Leone. What's that all about?

The school ban for pregnant girls came later and is unfortunately often treated in isolation. In my opinion, the SOA and the school ban belong together. Banning visibly pregnant girls from attending school and sitting exams had been practised in Sierra Leone before, but had never been formalised until 2015. This ban which can sometimes be enforced through humiliating physical exams continues to be in operation despite the government’s measures to improve access to education for everyone. It was originally framed as a response to the Ebola crisis, where reports claimed that rape, abuse and teenage pregnancies had risen drastically. However, I frequently speak to local experts who say that this data should be treated critically. During the Ebola crisis, there were suddenly many people in the country collecting statistics which was not done in such a systematic way before. This may have led to some bias in the statistics around teenage pregnancy. And then there were politicians who claimed that if pregnant girls went to school, they could inspire other girls to follow in their footsteps. Hence, pregnant girls were expelled to protect other girls from their influence. However, this practice is discriminatory and sets girls’ empowerment way back.

Alternative schools were created for pregnant girls, in which, in addition to the core subjects, girls should be prepared for giving birth and for motherhood. But that did not work out very well. Lessons were sporadic, not enough schools existed and the girls’ education lacked behind. Many girls do not return to school after having given birth. Thus, unfortunately, this school ban is an instrument of stigmatization rather than safeguarding.

How did the public react to that school ban, including the international public?

The school ban received media attention and widespread criticism by human rights organisations, local- and international stakeholders. For instance, Amnesty International published a report condemning the practice as stigmatising and as harmful for girls’ futures. West Africa researcher and human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani has focused international attention and has urged Sierra Leone not to leave young girls behind in the post-Ebola recovery. Indeed, several organisations filed a case with the ECOWAS court to end this ban. They also wanted the court to set down the rights and obligations of states vis-à-vis pregnant girls in case law. However, while the government has launched a programme for free education for all and has additionally declared a state of emergency for rape and sexual violence, the pregnancy ban stays in place. Sadly, in other countries, similar tendencies can be observed.

While the school ban gets much public attention, the Sexual Offences Act does not. This is a shame because both should be examined together. If you are an under-age girl in a consensual relationship and you fall pregnant in Sierra Leone today, you may face a court case and your boyfriend may go to prison. Additionally, you may be expelled from school. This is a fatal chain of events following a consensual love affair. And if we turn our attention to rape, which is the main target of the SOA, the recent declaration of Sierra Leone’s president of a state of a national emergency due to rape and sexual violence shows that much more must be done to end impunity and to refocus attention towards rape.

What would be - apart from concrete legal texts - sensible approaches to curb sexual violence against women and girls?

One should take the agency of young people seriously. Sexual and relationship education should be integral to every school’s curriculum. Sexual education should focus not only on the biomedical side of things but should also address relationship practices and systems of abuse. It is important for young people to know how to protect themselves from pregnancy and from sexually transmitted diseases and to destigmatise condom use. But it is also important to become acutely aware of patterns of abuse. Young people should be encouraged to define their own rules regarding sex and to feel empowered to say no to unwanted attention. Condoms should be readily made available from nurses and discussing sex should be destigmatised. Consent workshops should be a key part of sexual education. Additionally, work should be undertaken with men and boys alongside women and girls to decrease power imbalances and exploitative relationships. If men and boys break unhealthy gendered behavioural patterns this could go a long way towards prevention of violence.

Generally, the focus should be as much on prevention as on response. Ideally, girls and boys should know how to stay safe and how to receive support if something went wrong.

A big problem in Sierra Leone is the gap between very rich people and economically marginalised people. The latter are often exploited by the former. Access to justice is not always straightforward. Hence, another key issue should be to address these blatant power inequalities and to ensure fair processes at police stations, courts and the prison. Regarding already pregnant girls, exclusion and stigmatisation cannot be the solution. Efforts should focus on how such girls can complete their schooling despite being pregnant.

Luisa Schneider is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology where she examines privacy, intimacy, violence and state-citizen relations among unhoused persons in Germany. She holds a PhD from Oxford, where her research focused on sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone and its mediation at interpersonal, household, community and state levels. She combined analysis of top-down policy and legal approaches to violence prevention and response with grassroots understandings of the role and place of violence in and outside of relationships.

Next to her academic work, Schneider is a research consultant with over 9 years of experience working on the prevention of violence against women and girls and sexual and gender-based violence. She has been working for NGOs and IOs in India, Sierra Leone, Thailand, the UK, Austria and Germany.

Article written by:
Odenthal Frank_Autorenfoto
Frank Odenthal
Sierra Leone
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I conduct research in Sierra Leone where I focus on violence against women and girls, intimate partner violence, and sexual and gender-based-violence.
Embed from Getty Images
I also wanted to know what happens when cases are reported to the police which is why I followed cases in police stations and courts.
Embed from Getty Images
Many countries in West Africa and beyond identified reducing violence against women and girls as a main social and political goal.
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