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Women Of Sierra Leone Suffer Painful War Legacy

Women of Sierra Leone Suffer Painful Legacy of Wartimes' Sexual Slavery, Torture and Mass Rapes Years Later, Amnesty International Reports

Six years after the end of war in Sierra Leone, tens of thousands of women and girls who survived mass rapes, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other crimes of sexual violence continue to suffer as so-called "rebel wives," targeted for discrimination and exclusion and denied access to health care, jobs and schools, Amnesty International said today in a report.

At a mass rally, activists planned to turn the report into a call for the newly elected government to ensure justice and full reparations for the women. In advance of recent elections, the government promised support for reconciliation recommendations that include reparations.

The 35-page report, Sierra Leone: Getting reparations right for survivors of sexual violence, revealed the tragic extent to which an estimated 250,000 women and girls--up to a third of the female population--are stigmatized and suffering the after-effects of the sexual violence that was used as a weapon of war during the 11-year conflict in Sierra Leone.

"The government has still not fully addressed the unimaginable brutality of violations committed against Sierra Leone's women and girls, although the crimes are well-documented," said Tania Bernath, Amnesty International's researcher on Sierra Leone. "The lack of justice and effective remedies has to a certain extent set the stage for further violence against women."

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Without appropriate health care and access to work, economic and educational opportunities, the women have found it difficult if not impossible to rebuild their lives after the war, Bernath said.

The government has an obligation under international law to bring to justice those responsible for mass and gang rapes, sexual slavery and sexual violence, which are considered war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture, said Bernath. Survivors also must receive full reparations, she said.

The Lomé Peace Accord, signed in 1999, provided for the establishment of a "Special Fund for War Victims" and for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the government has failed to establish the fund, despite demands that it do so.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also called for the establishment of a reparations process. This is now being set up, with the National Commission for Social Action taking the lead, but it will need the full support of the government to be effective.

"The delay in setting up a special fund for war victims has undoubtedly resulted in further suffering--especially for the women of Sierra Leone," said Bernath. "Survivors of sexual violence have been denied rehabilitation--extending their suffering and compounding their physical and psychological problems."

Amnesty International stressed in its report that the justice process is an important complement to other forms of reparations.

"A properly functioning justice system should enable survivors to describe what has happened to them in an environment that protects their dignity and helps to end impunity for the horrific crimes they have suffered--holding the perpetrators to account and bringing them to justice."

Women and girls from Sierra Leone's easternmost district, Kailahun, and from the northern districts of Tonkolili and Bombali shared their experiences with Amnesty International, describing the trauma they endured and the devastating consequences to their psychological, physical, medical, social and economic health and well-being.

Shame from the sexual violence, slavery and torture prevented large numbers of the women from returning to their communities after the war. Others live in silence, unable to share their painful memories out of fear that they will be rejected by family members and lose their economic security completely.

Linda, now 30, returned to her community in 2002, married, and said nothing to her husband about the sexual violence she had experienced. "Later I heard that other men in the community were making fun of him for being married to me. Soon after I had the child he left me."

Women who have borne children as a result of rape are not only unable to escape the stigma, but have to care for their children with limited means of sustaining themselves. The women and their children exist on the margins of society, rejected by family and community.

In some cases, women and girls have resorted to prostitution as a means of survival, which causes further marginalization.

Some women said that they had never spoken to anyone about their experiences due to the fear of stigma; others with children complained of being ridiculed and ostracized, and said they were shunned by other people, even relatives. Many said they needed medical care, education for their children, land to farm, micro-credit to start businesses and a place to live, but were weary of being labeled "rebel wives," women who had lived with the rebels or been raped.

Despite the passage of several women's rights bills, violations of women's rights in Sierra Leone continue unabated. Not only does violence against women and girls continue to be rampant, but efforts to prosecute perpetrators have been largely ineffective.


There has been little justice for survivors of war-related sexual violence in Sierra Leone. On June 20, 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three senior members of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) guilty of 11 out of 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These included rape and outrages on personal dignity including sexual slavery. Remarkably, this was the first instance of anyone in Sierra Leone being held to account for war-related crimes. While this is a significant step forward in the fight against impunity, it is only a small and partial response to addressing impunity for these crimes, since thousands of others have escaped justice.

An amnesty clause in the Lomé Accord bars prosecution of anyone accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes between 1991 and 1999. The amnesty also precludes victims from seeking reparations from perpetrators in Sierra Leone's national courts.

Amnesty International continues to call on the government of Sierra Leone to revoke its amnesty law as a matter of urgency and to prioritize rebuilding the justice system in order to effectively investigate all crimes committed during the conflict and prosecute those suspected to committing the crimes.


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