The women’s War
Sierra Leone has seen more than a decade of the worst kind of violence and human rights violations. What began in 1991 as a fight against corruption amongst the ruling elite turned into one of the bloodiest wars in Africa’s modern history. 50,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. In 2002, the devastating conflict ended after the intervention of a large UN force.
The women of Sierra Leone, who had always faced discrimination, were badly hit by the war. During the civil war, an estimated 33% of human rights violations were committed against women. According to a report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established after the war as part of the transitional justice process, the woman had suffered from “arbitrary detention, looting, destruction of property, assault, torture, forced labour, sexual abuse, amputation, forced recruitment, drugging, forced cannibalism, rape, sexual slavery and murder”. The war ended. However, the aftershocks continued to haunt the women in Sierra Leone.
The massive displacement caused by the war lead to the shattering of the social networks and bonds that in the past had afforded women some form of protection. Consequently some women became disaffiliated and increasingly vulnerable to violence, and the already limited services and infrastructure that existed prior to the conflict were destroyed.
Moreover women who had been captured during the war were not always welcomed back by their families and communities. They were seen as bringing dishonour to their families and thus shunned and rejected. The severe stigma faced by women deepened the wounds inflicted by the war.
However, the war also led to women taking on new roles and discovering strengths they had never known of before. The war forced women to take charge within the family and society, as men were often absent from the home as a result of fighting, or were displaced or killed. The increase in the number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) post-war, and the propagation of discourses around women’s equality and empowerment changed the status of women. Grassroots efforts of NGOs, ranging from trauma counselling and skills-building workshops to the provision of microcredit loans to vulnerable women significantly uplifted the status of women.
The women were aided along their path towards healing by the three-year Truth and Reconciliation Commission which held hearings in almost every part of Sierra Leone to give both victims and soldiers, including girls, a chance to share their experiences and build mutual understanding. The Special Court held to account the top leaders responsible for the nation’s bloodbath and indicted 14 men; the charges included sexual violence and sexual slavery. It was the first time in the history of the country that forced marriages, which had been rampant during the war years, became an international war crime. But most importantly these judgements made it clear that it is the perpetrators of sexual violence, and not the victims, who bear culpability. This played a significant role in tackling the rape stigma carried by women caught in the war.
Sierra Leonean women still have a war to fight. A huge number of women continue to face discrimination in education and employment opportunities as well as widespread violence. But today’s woman is better equipped than before and has the determination to advance her causes and fight for her rights.