Comment & analysis
The role of Parliament in ending Impunity on SGBV in Sierra Leone
2008-07-14, Issue 388
As a gender activist and secondly, as a Parliamentarian, I will provide an understanding of the Sierra Leone Parliament by highlighting its work thus far in relation to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). I will give a situational analysis of the prevalence and incidence of sexual and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone before, during and after the war and its consequences on women, girls and society at large. This will be followed by responses of government bodies at ending sexual and gender-based violence. I will then give an insight into the laws of Sierra Leone as far as they relate to sexual and gender-based violence. The role of the Sierra Leone Parliament in addressing sexual and gender-based violence will be next described, followed by a discussion on how Parliament partnered with CSO in this regard and end by making suggestions for the way forward for effective strategies to address impunity in Africa.
PREVALENCE OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE IN SIERRA LEONE
Domestic and gender-based violence, we all know, has social, economic, psychological, physical and emotional cost both to the individual and society. Yet such cost have been largely under-estimated and ignored, and it is not generally seen as a security issue.
In Africa, in particular, SGBV has been surrounded by a culture of silence and impunity. The range and complexity of the underlying causes make it a difficult issue to address. SGBV not only manifests itself as physical violence such as sexual abuse of women and children, but also includes forms of structural violence such as discriminatory laws and practices that prevent women from owning property or holding positions of authority within their communities.
In short, SGBV has been viewed as a security issue because it is a human rights violation and therefore impacts negatively on the ability of men and women to secure and enjoy their basic rights. It can also feed into broader societal violence and can consequently compromise the country’s development strides.
Sierra Leonean women, like most women in Africa, have suffered domestic and gender-based violence since time immemorial. Traditionally regarded as chattels of their societies, they have been battered, raped and sexually harassed with impunity.
Domestic and gender-based violence increased during the eleven years of civil conflict in Sierra Leone. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) established in 2002 findings reported that women and girls became the target in the brutal conflict in Sierra Leone. They were raped, forced into sexual slavery and endured other acts of sexual violence. The report further stated that many humanitarian workers exploited the extreme vulnerability of women and violated their rights by compelling them to barter their bodies in order to access aid and survival.
Even in post conflict Sierra Leone, domestic and gender-based violence still continues, with little attention given to it in post conflict reconstruction strategies. Newspapers in Sierra Leone carry articles daily on rape of women and girls as young as three years, wife battering leading to either permanent or temporary injury and/or murder.
The consequences of SGBV on Sierra Leonean women are numerous and its effects devastating. These include: high school wastage of girls, poor school performance, increased girl mothers and single parents, high incidence of HIV/AIDS and STIs, discrimination, stigmatization and rejection of raped victims, increased prostitution, high proportion of unwanted and street children, poor health status of women and girls, increasing poverty, low self esteem, trauma,
Patriarchy, high illiteracy levels, extreme poverty, limited access to resources and opportunities and negative cultural norms, perception of the status of women and men, have all worked to discriminate and under-represent women in political and socio-economic decision-making in Sierra Leone.
The TRC recommended among others:
- The repeal of provisions in protection of women and girls Act which links the proposal of sexual offences to “the moral character of the complainants”.
- Launching of campaign to end practice of customary law compelling victim of rape to marry the offender;
- Effecting the provisions of the CEDAW and Protocol to the African Chapter on human and People’s right (ACHPR) on the Rights of Women in Africa;
- Working towards the harmonization of the national laws of SL with the provision contained in the Rome Statutes of the ICC in regards to the evidentiary burden, rules of procedures and evidence in respect of crimes of sexual violence;
- Working towards the enactment of special legislation to address domestic violence. Such laws should facilitate the prosecution of offenders and empower women to access protection orders.
- Creating educational program for the police, prosecutors and judiciary officers raising awareness of issues of gender, educating and training them in the investigation and prosecution of GB crimes and sensitizing them on how to deal properly with complaints.
- Discouraging monetary compensation for the crimes of rape and sexual violence as alternative to reporting the crimes for criminal prosecution; and
- Encouraging communities to pursue prosecution for offenders of sex crimes.
GOVERNMENTAL BODIES RESPONSE ON ENDING IMPUNITY ON SEXUAL AND GENDER BASED VIOLENCE
Created in 1996, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs is the focal point for integrating women’s participation and gender issues into government strategic planning. The Ministry produced, in 2001, the National Policies for the Advancement of Women and Gender Mainstreaming. Both policies condemned sexual and gender based violence and it effect on women’s advancement and call on government to review laws to combat it. In 2004, a Memorandum of Understanding was drawn up between the Family Support Unit (FSU) of the Sierra Leone police Force and MSWGCA to allow them to join forces to monitor and report incidents of domestic violence and child right abuses. Social workers have been trained by the Ministry to collaborate closely with FSU staff at every police station where the Unit existed. Since 2005, the Ministry has undertaken the following strategies to deal with SGBV:
- Provided skills training for abused women; - Provided financial support to homeless and battered women; - Collaborated with the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone Defence of Children international and Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance (LAWCLA);
- Organised UNICEF-sponsored training for social workers and police to enhance the investigation of domestic violence cases;
- Arranged for periodic visits to families by the staff of the Ministry’s Family mediation Unit;
- Worked with International Rescue Centre (IRC), Cooperatiozione International and GOAL Sierra Leone to assist women and girls survivors of domestic violence by providing care, psychosocial counseling skills training services and temporary safe places for battered women. IRC and its Rainbow Centres, in collaboration with the Ministry, also facilitated access to free medical facilities at the Princess Christian Maternity hospital for sexual violence survivors and; and
- Established Domestic and Sexual Violence Committee at national and district levels and provided training for their members with from UNICEF.
The war saw the looting, vandalisation and destruction of health infrastructure while the remaining facilities are largely dysfunctional especially in the north, with devastating effects on vulnerable women and children. The Ministry of Health has implemented the following to address the situation and these include: the training of health professional on syndromic management of STI and the treatment of rape survivors; Collaboration between the reproductive Health Division and the IRC rainbow Centres to provide services to survivors as well as SGBV, capacity building and resource mobilization; the preparation of a National reproductive health Policy that includes a component addressing-based as a matter of priority; and collaborates with IRC on emergency obstetric care.
With regards to the Security, Police and Peace Keeping Forces have since 2001 undertaken the following:
- Documentation of gender-based violence throughout the country; - Establishment of FSUs in 19 Police Local Command Units (PLCUs) in the four regions of the country;
- Encouragement of women by the FSUs to report their experiences of gender-based violence; establishment of Women’s help Line; investigation of gender-based violence, leading to the conviction of 21 perpetuators, with prison terms ranging from 6 months to 22 years;
- Training of 105 staff members on awareness-raising, human rights, media and communication, record-keeping and files/job-tracking system and joint investigation by police and social workers;
- Development of syllabus for police training;
- Training of peacekeepers on HIV/AIDS/STIs, gender-relations training of trainers;
- Development of Sexual exploitation and Abuse (SEA) policy
WHAT IS THE LAW LIKE IN ADDRESSING SGBV?
It will interest you to know that most of the laws of Sierra Leone dates as far back as the colonial era in the eighteenth century and as such are out-dated. They are inadequate to deal with prosecution of crimes of sexual violence, including rape, sexual harassment and other forms of sexual abuse. The current rules of procedures and evidence in respect of crimes of sexual violence are not only discriminatory but are also offensive to women and girls.
Women and girls, who are sexually violated, rarely lay complaints, as the current environment is not conducive to doing so. This has led to a culture of impunity in respect of crimes of a sexual nature.
Domestic violence against women and girls intensified during the war and endures in the post-conflict period. The laws of Sierra Leone relating to the prosecution of domestic violence are inadequate and offer little protection of women and girls.
Women and girls experience great difficulties in pressing charges in respect of rape and sexual violence as police and the judiciary officials are reluctant to investigate and prosecute such cases.
Customary laws and practices in respect of sexual offences are deeply discriminatory against women and girls and have contributed to a culture of impunity over a long time. For instance, under the customary law, the consent of a minor for sex is not required. Crimes of rape and sexual violence are usually settled directly between violator and the parents or guardians of the girl child without the victim say in the matter. Families usually settle crimes of rape and sexual violence by accepting monetary compensation or by the offender being compelled to enter into marriage with the minor victim.
The Police and other law enforcement agencies until recently when the FSU was set up were reluctant to investigate and prosecute offences that occurred in a domestic relationship. The setting up of the FSU is recognition of the gap in relation to such crimes and even though the creation of the Unit is an important step towards the elimination of violence in the home, the police however still face serious challenges in investigating and prosecuting such crimes. This has resulted in the loss of lives and physical injury to a lot of women and children who have been unsuccessful in their attempt to access justice for the crime they have suffered.
WHAT IS IN THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACT 2007?
The Domestic Violence Act was enacted in June, 2007. The Bill introduces the crime of domestic violence that covers violence that occurs in a domestic relationship i.e. between couples, partners, parents and children and other family members. The Bill seeks to address the high incidence of domestic violence in Sierra Leone which leads to more violence that sometimes results in death. Some of these acts of violence can be prosecuted under the general law but existing laws do not capture the domestic setting in which the incidence occurs and existing legislation does not provide the mechanism such as a protection order to prevent repetition of the abuse. The situation is further worsened as the victim’s livelihood and survival depend on the continuation of the relationship with the perpetuator.
It is important to note that the bill is gender neutral and includes violence committed by women against their spouses. In the area of protecting children the bill seeks to address violence against children. The bill also seeks to protect victim and potential victims by criminalizing certain acts of violence and providing the court with wider powers to make protection orders to prevent the perpetuator from continuing the violence complained of and to enforce protection orders by the court. Anyone who receives a protection order can apply to the court to set aside the order.
The Bill also seeks to eliminate the culture of silence and impunity in relation to crimes that occur in a domestic relationship.
ROLE OF SIERRA LEONE PARLIAMENT IN ENDING IMPUNITY ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND GENDER BASED VIOLENCE
Parliament, as you all know, has as one of its role the making of laws. This is especially so given the fact that most of the laws in Sierra Leone dates back to the colonial era and as such are out-dated, ridiculous, obnoxious and no longer relevant to current situations and realities of the country. But more importantly, the gross violations of human rights, including sexual and gender-based violence during the eleven-year civil conflict, has made it imperative to review existing and/or make new laws.
After the civil conflict in Sierra Leone, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Special Court (SC) were set up. The TRC was to document and report atrocities committed during the war, identify the causes of the conflict and make recommendations that will prevent a re-occurrence. The SC was to try those who bore greatest responsibility for the war with a view to end impunity. In other words, while TRC sought restorative justice, the SP was retributive. These two institutions were adhoc in nature. There was therefore the need apart from the judiciary, to institute mechanisms that will further the work of these two institutions when their mandate ends. The Lome Peace Accord and the TRC recommended the setting up of a National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) to address cases of human right abuses in the country. However, there was need for a parallel institution in with legislative powers to complement and reinforce the Commission’s work. It was this need that saw the establishment of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights (PCHR) in February, 2003.
The Committee’s initial capacity building and strategic planning seminar took place in August 2003 with support from the Governance Sector of the UNDP. During the seminar members of the Committee, the Parliamentary Committee on Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (PCSWGCA), national and international NGOs and CSO partners identified domestication of international human rights treaties as major strategy for achieving the Committee’s goals among which is to establish an enabling atmosphere for everyone to enjoy fully their human rights, regardless of their gender, ethnic origin, class, religion, status and disability.
In pursuant of the above and in response to the needs expressed, the Committee in 2004 summoned a meeting of representatives of women’s organisations at the UNDP office in Freetown to discuss women’s human rights concerns. A major outcome of that meeting was the decision that the PCHR work with women’s groups and NGOs to implement the recommendations of the Women’s Law Reform Agenda Conference of July 2003, particularly to ensure the domestication of CEDAW principles and standards into Sierra Leone’s national law.
A technical group of women experts, comprising lawyers, social workers, gender experts, human right advocates, was convened to work with the PCHR. The Committee in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Welfare and Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) then embarked on a nationwide consultation on gender issues that took Committee members and their partner human rights and women’s groups to all 12 districts and Western Area to meet with key stakeholders. The consultation sought the opinion of the stakeholders on the CEDAW articles with a view to ascertaining which of the articles had a profound effect on the lives of women irrespective of their culture, location, educational and marriage status, religion and largely accounts for women’s low status and limited involvement in development process. At the end of the consultation, participants were required to rank the three most important articles of the CEDAW for legislation. The report of the final outcomes and recommendations of the consultation were considered by the experts, who developed a framework that was, in turn, passed on to a group of private legal draftspersons.
The Expert Group then produced four-draft Bills-Devolution of Estate, Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce, Matrimonial Causes and Domestic Violence. The four draft legislations were sent to the official Draftsman in the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice for his review and comments.
Thereafter discussions with the Law Reform Commission (LRC) led to a harmonization workshop on the 10th and 12th February, 2006 at which MPs of the PCHR and officials of the LRC reviewed all the available draft national legislation on women’s rights issues and produced a single document for each of the bills containing the synthesis of all proposals for legal reform for women.
The product of the parliamentary/LRC harmonization went back to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice once again for a decision to been taken on the draft Matrimonial Causes Bill.
From the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the Bills had to be heard in a Pre-legislative Parliamentary Committee. The aim is to allow submissions from interested groups on the Bills, improve Parliamentarians understanding of the draft Bills and to make further recommendations for amendments of Bills, if so desired. Women’s and CSO representatives from all over the country were present during the hearing, and as such put pressure on government and Parliamentarians for the speedy passage of the Bills.
The three Bills were finally laid before Parliament on June 14th 2007 with a Certificate of Urgency from the President. More women and CSO country-wide were in attendance that day all wearing white, with placards carrying various slogans on sexual and gender-based violence and urging the passage of the Bills with threats and blackmail of not voting for Parliamentarians and political parties who opposed the Bills. The Debate on the Bills started at 10am in the morning, with the first reading by the Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. The PCHR led the debate. The Committee Stage of the Bills was witnessed by long and protracted arguments, motions and counter motions, frustrations, and anger. Up in the gallery, the women blackmailed and threatened when motions raised were not favourable to them but applauded when motions were in their favour. At exactly 8pm the three Bills were passed into law with some amendments, amidst jubilations, shouts of joy and cry of happiness.
The Sierra Leone Parliament could not have enacted the Bills on its own successfully. It needed the sustained technical input, advocacy, pressure, regular consultation, education and sensitization by CSOs, especially those whose work are directly related to women’s advancement, empowerment and human rights. Of course the level of CSO participation in the various stages varied, depending on their main thrust, geographical cover, experience, resource-base (human and institutional), size and age. CSOs with legal and human right experts were very instrumental at the conceptualization and drafting stages of the Bills. Once the Bills were drafted, others with expertise in education, awareness raising, negotiation, mobilization, fund-raising and advocacy skills became very instrumental in popularizing the draft Bills. This they did through radio and television discussions, jingles, focused group discussions, seminars and workshops, protest marches, poster displays and exhibitions, roadside shows and newspaper article. For example, the Council of Women Councillors collected thousands of signatories of individual and women’s groups and CSOs and presented them to government, political parties and international organisations with a view to soliciting their support for the Bills.
During the Pre-Legislative hearing, for instance, representatives of women’s organisations and other CSO from all over the country, literate or not swam Parliament, displaying placards with very powerful messages on the situation, effect, causes and strategies to address SGBV and threats. Some women’s groups and CSOs also made salient submissions to the Committee of the Whole House in which they made additional recommendations and amendments to the Bills. On March 8, International Women’s Day, a symposium was organised by the MSWGCA and the PCHR in collaboration with CSOs to discuss and sensitise women and stakeholders on the gender Bills, solicit participants views and comments on the Bills and to develop a plan of action for its speedy enactment, implementation, monitoring and reporting.
- As a result of all the above Pre-legislative activities, the following were achieved:
- Circumventing the Constitutional requirements of fourteen and seven days, respectively, for the gadgeting and tabling of the Bills in Parliament;
- Enacting the three Bills in one day;
- Accompanying of the Bills by Certificate of Emergency from the President;
- Cooperation of male Parliamentarians for fear of losing female votes;
- Cooperation of all political parties in Parliament for fear of losing female votes; and
- Creation of a forum for Parliament and CSO collaboration; and
- National ownership of the Bills.
Even though the input of every Parliamentarian was required during the Pre-legislative and debate stages, yet the contributions of PCHR, PCSWGCA and Legislative Committee were, especially, very crucial in the entire enactment process. Joint meetings were held periodically to review the processes and legality of the clauses in the Bills. The PCSWGCA helped, especially, in the mobilisation of women and women’s groups, given their oversight responsibility of the MSWGCA.
I have given a vivid description of the role of the Sierra Leone Parliament in the enactment of the three gender Bills. You would think that the Bills were handed to us on a silver plate. There were a lot of challenges we had to contend with.
The first challenge was with the Law Reform Commission (LRC), which questioned the Committee’s mandate to make or reform laws, and as such went ahead and developed four similar draft Bills. The Committee drew the attention of the LRC to the law making role of Parliament in the Constitution and threatened to throw out any Bills brought by the LRC to Parliament. Thus a stalemate developed between the Committee and the LRC, which again brought the process to a standstill for several weeks. With the Intervention of the Speaker of the House and the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, a workshop was held to harmonize the Bills.
The second challenge had to do with piloting of the three Bills in Parliament. Should it be a private members Bill of the PCHR or government bill of the MSWGCA? The PCHR argued that it was there effort, initiative and inspiration that produced the first ever draft of the gender Bills despite decades of discussion on the domestication of the CEDAW. They also claimed vast knowledge on the whole process and as such were in a better position to defend the Bills and monitor their implementation. The MSWGCA, on the other hand, claimed that the Bills fell under their Ministry and would be the main implementing ministry and therefore should champion their passage. This impasse halted the process for several months. It was finally resolved that the Bills be government-led while the PCHR taking the lead in the debate. By then, the life of parliament was ended, with elections being scheduled for July 2007 and Parliament to be prorogued in June 2007.
The third challenge was the production, gadgeting and tabling of the three Bills in Parliament. The Government Printing Press was under tremendous pressure at the time to produce the electoral Bills for enactment before Parliament was prorogued, given the Press limited resources. According to the Constitution, Bills are published in the gadget and laid before Parliament 14 and 7 days, respectively, before they can be debated. With every delay in printing, gadgeting and tabling in Parliament, the Bills risked not being passed into law before parliament was prorogued. The Committee and women’s groups put a lot of pressure on the political parties and government to prevail on the Press to print and government to gadget the Bills before the end of the life of Parliament or risk losing women’s vote. With this pressure the Bills were eventually printed, published in the gadget and laid before Parliament. That was just a few days before the scheduled proroguing of Parliament. The eleven and seven day constitutional requirements had to be set aside in order to debate the Bills before Parliament was prorogued.
The fourth challenge was how to successfully manage and sustain CSOs-Parliament collaboration, without usurping and undermining each others roles, responsibilities and powers.
The over-enthusiasm of CSOs to see the Bills passed sometimes led to making of unreasonable demands on the Committee and Parliamentarians, more especially women. Often and again CSO accused the Committee of foot dragging; insincerity, of not being committed to women’s causes and as such blackmailed Parliamentarians by threatening to withhold their votes if the Bills are not passed before the elections.
Parliamentary procedures are guided by the Constitution and the Standing Orders. But the CSOs could not understand, for example, the eleven and seven-day stipulation for gadgeting and tabling of Bills, respectively. They also ignored that the gender Bills competed with other equally important Bills such as the Electoral Act, without which elections could not be held on the schedule time. Parliamentarians’ competing duties of constituency representation and over-sighting the Executive tended to also be ignored by the CSOs. The eighteen Women Parliamentarians by themselves could not enact the Bills without forging alliances with their male and yet the CSOs squarely put the responsible on their shoulders.
The CSOs were vehemently opposed to any amendments of the three Bills, particularly, the section on Female Genital Mutilation, which they wanted totally abolished and criminalized. Yet Provincial Parliamentarians, especially women, were under tremendous pressure from their constituents not to abolish FGM and threaten to campaign against any Parliamentarian, who supported the motion. The compromise was to criminalize FGM for children (less than 18 years) and for non-consent, which did not go down well with the former.
Parliamentarians and the Committee countered CSOs accusations by reminding them of their inability to produce a single draft bill despite years of rhetoric, the need to be more organised and focused and sensitive to the numerous and competing demands on Parliamentarians. These accusations and counter accusations at some point became very counter-productive and nearly derailed the process. This necessitated the clarification and delineation of each other roles, responsibilities, powers and rules of engagement in order to forge ahead.
BEYOND THE LAW: WHAT NEXT?
The enactment of the Domestic Violence Act 2007 is just one strategy in ending impunity on sexual and gender-based violence. New institutions need to be put in place and old ones strengthened for effective implementation of the law. For example, sanctuaries to provide temporary or permanent relief for victims and their children need to be provided across the country. Economic empowerment programmes is imperative to reduce over-dependence of women and girls on men.
Every Sierra Leonean needs to be aware of the existence of the Domestic Violence Act and thoroughly understand its contents. To achieve this there is need for a detailed plan of action for its implementation. The Bill should be simplified and made available in every community, public and educational institutions.
Various Committees need to be set up at every level to advocate, educate, sensitize, investigate, monitor and report on the implementation of Act.
The human and logistical resource requirements for the successful implementation of the law are huge. For example basic services such as free legal, medical and psycho-social support needs to be accessible at all times to victims to help them access justice.
Different capacities need to be built and or strengthened at all levels and across sectors for effective implementation. The judiciary, police, investigation bureaus, courts, medical doctors, social workers, communities, women’s groups, civil society and policy makers are all targets for such training.
Alliances need to be built and or strengthened nationally and internationally among and between different interest groups to facilitate the sharing of technical and logistical exchange on SGBV.
Political will and leadership, critical to the commitment of resources and creation of the enabling environment, will be needed to move and sustain the implementation of the law.
There is need for the full participation of the survivors of SGBV and potential victims as well as perpetuators in the design, implementation and monitoring of SGBV programmes.
All the above call for regular, systematic, coordinated and genuine CSO/Legislature interface, devoid of the usual suspicion and antagonism. There is need for the holding of regular national dialogue to exchange views on the SGBV. Joint Public Parliamentary Hearings can be an invaluable avenue for informing each other on the implementation status of the Act. Given the specialist nature of most CSOs, they can make periodic expert presentations to Parliament. Such presentations can greatly enhance the oversight role of Parliamentarians.
A lot of lessons were learnt during the enactment of the gender Bills, which needs to be documented in a post-mortem meeting. Such documentation could serve as useful guidelines in future collaboration. But what is most critical is the willingness of CSOs and Parliament to work together by recognizing and acknowledging each others strengths and weaknesses.
*Bernadette Lahai, a Sierra Leonean politician and educationist is currently a member of Sierra Leone's parliament representing Kenema District.
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