, 03 August, 2020 / 11:01 PM
At St. Mary’s Interim Child Care Centre within the Archdiocese of Freetown in Sierra Leone, girls as young as five who have been sexually molested embark on the bumpy process of searching for justice in the West African country where cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are rife.
Living with 25 other children at this home that is perched off the scenic River Number Two beach, under the shelter of Caritas Freetown, is Rebecca (not her real name), who was raped alongside her three sisters and infected with a disease.
Narrating the incident to ACI Africa, Fr. Peter Konteh, founder of the Centre that also provides a safe haven for homeless children and orphans, says that Rebecca, 10, and her siblings aged 16 and 14 were sexually molested by their brother-in-law who tried to wipe off all evidence that would potentially get him behind bars.
“Rebecca and her two sisters were living with their eldest sister. It was the husband of their sister that raped them and sneaked the two older children outside the country to avoid being caught. We came in really fast to take up the youngest girl to try and build the case on the man,” says Fr. Konteh, adding that the perpetrator of the heinous act shipped his two victims to neighboring Liberia to prevent them from talking to authorities.
The 26 girls at the Centre are just a drop in the ocean as compared to the thousands of girls who are living with memories of rape that have tainted their lives, according to Fr. Konteh who doubles as Executive Director Caritas Freetown.
“The numbers are very alarming,” he says, when asked about the situation of SGBV in the country from a charity organization founder’s perspective.
“The saddest thing is that most of the numbers we deal with are of children who are below eight years old. Children who have hardly started going to school and who do not understand what is going around them,” he narrates.
Statistics provided by Freetown-based Rainbo Initiative, which provides free medical services and counseling to victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the west African country indicate that there were 3,137 and 3,695 cases of sexual violence in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Further, reports indicate that in 2018, 76 percent of rape victims were aged 15 years or younger, including babies. The rest of the victims were aged between 16 and 20.
Sexual violence has been a protracted problem for Sierra Leone, with some linking it to the country’s 11 years of civil war.
Fr. Konteh says that child soldiers who participated in the war committed multiple atrocities including raping children and women, and that the deep-rooted vices continue to play out in present-day Sierra Leone.
“It was easy for the young boys who fought many years ago to just force themselves on women. The young boys became men and were taken back in society. Some of them are the ones behind the high rape cases,” he says.
One of the rape cases that has attracted global condemnation is of a five-year old who died from injuries she sustained after she was raped by a gang of men including an alleged relative.
And one of the cases that St. Mary’s Interim Child Care Centre has taken up in pursuit for justice, Fr. Konteh says, is of a seven-year old who was allegedly raped repeatedly by a 70-year-old man.
Some of the sexual crimes are perpetrated by influential people and people in leadership positions, Fr. Konteh discloses to ACI Africa, and highlights an incident in which a respected politician was caught in the act, sexually molesting a 15-year-old girl.
According to the Sierra Leonean Cleric, the rape of minors also has a ritual inclination, where some believe that having sexual relations with virgins brings with it prosperity in life.
The fight against sexual violence in Sierra Leone by Church groups and civil society organizations has always been deterred by an inefficient legal system and high poverty levels and corruption where perpetrators of the heinous crimes bribe their way out of legal processes.
Caritas Freetown leadership shares that between 2013 and 2014 when the Ebola outbreak hit Sierra Leone, teenage pregnancies skyrocketed in the country, a situation that was accompanied by a high rate of school dropout in underage girls.
As a result of this, officials of the charity and development arm of the Catholic Archdiocese of Freetown say that high poverty levels have been recorded in women in the country, thereby snatching them a voice in the occasion that they become victims of social injustices.
Additionally, the country has, for years, lacked equipped medical facilities to test for abuse and to provide scientifically proven evidence that a victim has actually been raped, the Caritas Freetown Director says.
“We didn’t have testing centers to verify claims of rape by testing DNA. But recently, the government started installing well-equipped testing centers in many parts of the country and we hope that it will be easier to get such evidence to use in court. Initially, it was just the victim’s word versus the rapist and it never helped,” he says.
The other gain in the fight against SGBV is the review of the child and sexual gender act by lawmakers in Sierra Leone which, among other provisions, will see an increase in the number of years that a child molester spends in jail in the country.
Sierra Leone has also, reportedly, set up a special court to tackle swelling cases of rape in a move intended by the government to build the confidence of victims and to get them reporting their cases without fear of victimization.
At St. Mary’s Interim Child Care Centre, victims of sexual abuse find the conducive environment they require in pursuit of justice with the help of various entities, including Caritas Freetown, Salesians of Don Bosco (SDB) who have a number of initiatives that target the vulnerable children in the country, as well as other organizations that support efforts to eradicate SGBV in the West African country.
Sisters of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus tend to the children at the Centre that was initially a reserve for orphans and children who were left homeless following the outbreak of Ebola.
“We built the Centre in 2014 to provide a safe residence for homeless children and orphans. But when the fight for justice for sexual assault victims became a challenge in the country, we opened an arm for these equally vulnerable group,” Fr. Konteh says.
The children undergo counselling and mentorship and are taught to be assertive in preparation for their accounts in court.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa