By Luisa T. Schneider on January 9, 2019
Sierra Leone has a long history of sexual and gender based violence, dating back to the colonial era and stretching into the years of independence which began in 1961. The country’s civil war, which raged between 1991 and 2002, brought international attention to the high levels of violence against women. In this way, Sierra Leone is similar to many young democracies in Africa with a violent history; it struggles with patriarchal attitudes and high levels of violence against women and girls.
After the war, several legal changes were made to try and address this kind of violence. One was the Domestic Violence Act, ratified in 2007. It criminalises all forms of violence – physical, sexual, emotional and economic — against women and outlines strict punishments for perpetrators. But, as I found during long-term research in Sierra Leone, very few women – especially married women – feel genuinely protected by this law, and other similar ones. There are a few reasons for this. One is that in Sierra Leone some forms of violence are considered necessary and acceptable within relationships. Another is that women who do report face enormous stigma and the risk of losing security for themselves and their children. Finally, the state legal system and the police don’t prioritise cases involving married women – they often tell women to resolve the matter privately rather than going through the courts.
If Sierra Leone is to tackle the problem of domestic violence, lawmakers and the authorities need to understand the social dynamics around love and violence. They also need to support and protect women who report violence, to ensure they don’t experience stigma and further violence from their partners, families and communities.