Partner: Binta Mansaray
Countless atrocities were committed during the course of Sierra Leone’s devastating, drawn-out conflict from 1991-2001. With civilians being the primary target of attack, women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the civil war. AFRC and RUF forces regularly kidnapped girls and young women, forcing them into sexual servitude for the forces, or into marriage with commanders. Women young and old were beaten, mutilated, raped, and killed by child soldiers and their adult commanders. For the rebels, sexual violence became a weapon to be used against the civilian populations, as a demonstration of its power and impunity.
Sexual violence has been generally accepted as a part of armed conflict. Sexual violence encompasses many different crimes, including rape, sexual mutilation, sexual humiliation, forced prostitution, and forced pregnancy. Traditionally seen as being part of the spoils of war, violence visited upon enemy women can also take on tremendous symbolic proportions as attacks on men and the social fabric.
Sexual violence can be seen as a means of troop mollification, particularly where women are forced into military sexual slavery. In Sierra Leone, teenaged girls are often kidnapped and forced to become "brides" in the RUF. Sexual violence is also perpetuated to destroy male (and consequently, community) pride. In failing to "protect" their women, men are humiliated, and seen as weak. Inflicting terror on the population at large, sexual violence shatters communities and drives people from their homes from fear of attack. Increasingly, sexual violence has been considered in the context of torture and genocide. As a genocidal strategy, sexual violence can inflict life-threatening bodily and mental harm, and can lead to the ultimate destruction of an entire people.
Victims of sexual violence suffer both tremendous physical and psychological damage. Survivors are often faced with unwanted pregnancies and infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Injury to the genital area because of repeated sexual assaults and abuse increases the likelihood of HIV transmission. The psychological sufferings consequent to sexual violence can be devastating.
Survivors often suffer from "Rape Trauma Syndrome," a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The stigma attached to sexual violence often means that disclosure of abuse only further injures the victim, as she may suffer from rejection, "social death," or continued violence. The psychosocial damage resulting from situations of mass violence and atrocities does not simply disappear with the cessation of conflict. Psychological suffering continues to be borne (often in silence and with shame) by survivors, individual communities, and the larger society. Healing from such injury cannot take place without social supports, such as health and welfare services sensitive to the particular needs of sexual violence survivors, and collective social mechanisms which can satisfy the victims' need for justice.