Coalition for Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations

News Release

Women Talk of Rape Before the Sierra Leone Truth Commission

Freetown - May 22, 2003

The Coalition on Women's Human Rights in Conflict Situations testified today before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) at special hearings on sexual violence during Sierra Leone's decade-long war. The TRC is dedicating two days to thematic hearings on sexual violence.

"Sexual violence has remained Sierra Leone's invisible war crime. Thousands were raped during the decade-long war," said Binaifer Nowrojee, a Kenyan lawyer who testified on behalf of the Coalition. "The TRC is providing an important historic opportunity to give voice to the silent suffering of these rape survivors."

During the decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001, thousands of women and girls were subjected to widespread and sexual violence, including individual and gang rape, and rape with objects such as weapons, firewood, umbrellas, and pestles. The victims of rape were of all ages, ethnic groups, and socio-economic classes. The sexual violence was perpetrated by both the rebels and the government, but mostly by rebel forces.

According to Human Rights Watch, child combatants raped women who were old enough to be their grandmothers, rebels raped pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and fathers were forced to watch their daughters being raped. Women were made forced "wives" of the combatants. Young women and girls whom the rebels thought were virgins were particularly targeted for rape and forced "marriage." Many women were raped so violently that they sometimes bled to death or suffered tearing in the genital area. The crimes of sexual violence were generally characterized by extraordinary brutality and frequently preceded or followed by other egregious human rights abuses.

These hearings will allow the TRC to more fully examine and record the crimes of sexual violence that were inflicted against Sierra Leonean women during the conflict. Sexual violence has remained Sierra Leone's invisible war crime. Until recently, little attention has been paid either nationally or internationally to this human rights abuse, although sexual violence was committed on a much larger scale than the widely reported amputations for which Sierra Leone became notorious. The underreporting is a reflection of the failure of most observers, documenters, and the media to investigate and report the attacks on women. The lack of publicity is also the result of the subordinated status of women and girls in Sierra Leone that further disadvantages them and downplays their suffering. The stigma and internal shame that makes survivors unwilling to come forward for fear of rejection by their family or communities is also another reason for the silence.

The Coalition urged the TRC to ensure an enabling environment that will provide rape victims with the comfort and privacy they need to come forward to testify. It called on the TRC to ensure that the experiences of women during the war are fully reflected in their findings. In its consideration of rape and other sexual violence crimes, the Coalition urged the TRC to frame its findings within the context of the expanding international law and not to downplay or trivialize women's experiences during the war. In concluding, the Coalition urged the TRC to ensure that their recommendations to the Sierra Leonean government and the international community consider the specific needs of the women survivors.

Certainly, advances have been made in recognizing women’s rights. The legal framework is increasingly responsive to the experiences of women and girls in conflict, especially in cases of sexual violence, as we have seen in the important work being carried out by the international criminal tribunals. But there remains much to be done, particularly to improve prevention and to combat impunity.

-- Kofi Annan
October 28, 2002