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"We'll Kill You if You Cry:" Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2003
81 pages
This paper offers recommendations for responding to the aftermath of the widespread and systematic sexual violence perpetrated on thousands of women and girls of all ages throughout the armed conflict in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001.
In addition to individual and gang rape and rape with objects, thousands of women and girls were abducted by the rebels and subjected to sexual slavery, in which they were forced to become sex slaves of their rebel "husbands." The main perpetrators of sexual violence, including sexual slavery, were the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Force Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the West Side Boys, a splinter group of the AFRC. Human Rights Watch has documented only a limited number of cases of sexual violence by pro-government forces, the Sierra Leone Army, and the militia known as Civil Defense Forces. To date there has been no accountability for the thousands of crimes of sexual violence or other appalling human rights abuse committed during the war. The 1999 Lome Peace Agreement included a blanket amnesty under Sierra Leonean law for offenses committed by all sides. Two important transitional justice mechanisms, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, have been established with United Nations assistance; they are responsible for investigating the human rights abuses, including sexual violence and sexual slavery, committed by all parties during the war. The lack of attention to war-related sexual violence means that few assistance programs have been established for women and girls who were subjected to sexual violence. International donors and nongovernmental organizations should work together with the Government of Sierra Leone to establish programs that will help to rehabilitate the survivors of sexual violence. To combat impunity and work toward changing societal attitudes toward sexual violence, the Government of Sierra Leone should, with the technical and financial support of the international community, revise its discriminatory laws to ensure that they meet international standards. The constitution also should be reviewed with a view toward removing the provision that exempts personal and customary law from the prohibition against discrimination. In addition, the government should take steps to improve the response of the legal system to ongoing sexual and domestic violence. A nationwide public awareness campaign should be undertaken to educate the general population about women's human rights. Recommendations are directed to the Government of Sierra Leone, members of the African Union and Economic Community of West African States, members of the international community, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone.