What is behind the rape 'epidemic'?

Author:Samboma, Julian Lahai
Position:Around Africa: Sierra Leone

What is behind the huge increase in the incidence of sexual violence and rapes in Sierra Leone? The government has announced draconian measures against perpetrators but will these address the root causes? Julian Lahai Samboma set out to find out.

When Sierra Leone's government recently passed legislation making the crime of sexual penetration of minors punishable by life imprisonment, the move was universally hailed as a signal that the government was serious about getting to grips with the spiralling rise of rapes and gender-based violence in the country.

The new legislation was speedily enacted on the back of President Julius Maada Bio's declaration that the crisis was a national emergency. This was after figures showing that the number of rapes and sexual assaults against women and young girls last year had risen to over 8,500, from just 632 reported cases in 2012.

However, it was only in 2012 that the police began officially recording incidents of sexual violence, so in that year there was serious under-reporting of cases. The situation improved in subsequent years, as witnessed by the over 8,500 cases reported last year.

"Our commitment [to solving this problem] is beyond mere words and beyond mere acknowledgement of an obligation," the President said. "The protection and empowerment of our women and girls is critical to our existence and progress as a nation."

Whatever the statistical anomalies, there is no doubt that the egregious incidence of rapes and gender-based violence against women and underage girls--who account for over 70% of sexual assault victims--is a major social and perhaps cultural disaster. The question is why is this happening in a relatively small country like Sierra Leone?

What is the truth behind the assertion that spiralling gender-based violence in Sierra Leone can be attributed largely to the country's bloody civil war in the decade of the 1990s?

In this context, it is interesting to look at the work of Dr Luisa Schneider, a German anthropologist who had worked on the issue in Sierra Leone, and written several papers on it. She holds that the problem can be traced right back to the country's history of slavery and colonialism.

Speaking to New African, Dr Schneider said: "Anthropologists often work with the concept of a continuum of violence to snow that individual acts of violence against women do not happen in isolation from larger social, political and economic structures of violence.

"In Sierra Leone," she...

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