Links Between Conflict-Related Violence and Peace Time Practices: Perspectives from Sierra Leone


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by Rosaline MCarthy

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) refers to violent actions taken by armed personnel against women, girls, men, and boys during times of war. CRSV can take many forms, and includes rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and other acts of similar gravity. Before the mid-1990s there was hardly any data available on the magnitude of this violence and its consequences. The wars in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s drew the attention of human rights groups, civil society groups, policy makers and the social sciences to CRSV. In 2007, the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations, Women’s Forum (Sierra Leone) and others issued the Nairobi Declaration on Women’s and Girls’ Rights to a Remedy and Reparations. In 2009, Rights and Democracy in Montreal, Canada commissioned research on the application of the principles of the Nairobi Declaration in Sierra Leone. This was an attempt to find out how the government was addressing the issue of reparations for victims of sexual violence during the war.

More recently, in 2017, the justice committee of the CSIW Project conducted online research on justice mechanisms for victims. The aim of this post is to review linkages between CRSV and peacetime practices through reviewing applicable legal provisions and sharing frontline experiences from Women’s Forum Sierra Leone (WFSL). WFSL conducts research and works to promote and apply national, regional, and international law and policy on gendered violence to support victims of gender and sexual violence in Sierra Leone.

Threats to women’s human rights and gender inequality

In 1993, the International Conference on Human Rights recognised that women’s rights were human rights and that violence against women was an abuse of women’s human rights. Human rights activists made the connection between CRSV, violations of women’s human rights, and perpetuation of gender inequality, and called on states to protect and uphold the rights of women and girls, including in times of conflict. During Sierra Leone’s war, women’s human rights were violated. Physicians for Human Rights stated in 2002 that over 250,000 women and girls suffered violations. Only 3,602, however, registered with the Reparations Directorate and benefited from reparations after peace was secured. Many survivors did not register and did not benefit.

Research conducted in 2013 in partnership with the Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW) project showed that reasons for not registering included shame, stigma, not knowing about the directorate, and logistical barriers such as travel time and cost. Even after the war, domestic violence and rape continue, even with the passage of the three Gender Justice Laws (2007) and the Sexual Offences Law (2012). The Protocol to The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right on the Rights of Women in Africa (adopted in Maputo in 2003 and ratified by Sierra Leone in 2015) highlights discrimination against women and the negative impacts of poverty as contributing to ongoing violence. It focuses on women’s protection during and post-conflict reconstruction; calls for rebuilding infrastructure; and the provision of basic services that take into account gender-sensitive programming (Art.11, para.5).

Reframing gendered violence in the peace and security dialogue

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) was the first resolution to draw attention to the violations against women during wars. It called for sex specific data and research on the gender dimensions of peace and security. Its advocacy was built around prevention of violence, protection of women from violence, punishing perpetrators, and enhancing women’s participation in peace building. The eight subsequent resolutions on women, peace and security each reaffirm the UN’s commitment to combat CRSV. In 2010, the UN appointed, for the first time, a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (VAW). The special rapporteur gathers information on VAW from governments, treaty bodies, and specialised agencies, and makes recommendations to eliminate all forms of VAW at all levels of government.

Many countries, including Sierra Leone, have developed national action plans (NAPS) on the resolution. With support from Global Network of Women Peace Builders (GNWP), GNWP Sierra Leone, of which WFSL is a member, has been monitoring the implementation of the NAP through the use of desk research, consultations, focus group discussions and key informant interviews. Indicators used for monitoring include the number of reported cases of VAW, the number prosecuted, and the degree of women’s representation in key decision-making positions in the security sector and public service. In 2015 the UN commissioned a study to identify key implementation gaps in the UNSCR 1325 NAPS. A key gap identified was the limited participation of women in peace and security including conflict prevention and protection of women’s rights during conflict. The report called for accelerated action to achieve women’s leadership in peace and security, help victims overcome their trauma and the scars of war, and enhance their ability to access and control resources.

The issue of women’s leadership in decision-making at all levels is a key concern to women in Sierra Leone. We have been lobbying and advocating for the 30% quota (affirmative action) to be granted to us in line with international declarations but to no avail. We are hoping that when the women’s position is reflected in the pending review of the 1991 constitution of Sierra Leone this affirmative action will become a reality. Other avenues being explored to accelerate the advancement of women in leadership include the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) policy, which has been drafted and awaiting adoption by cabinet. Women’s Forum has also been engaged in monitoring the progress made in the implementation of the UNSCRs 1325 and 1820.This involvement has given us insights into the situation on the ground and provides an opportunity for independent civil society perspective through documenting information /data evidence and analysis of the women ‘peace and security sector’.

The impact of CRSV on individuals, families, communities, and countries remains a major concern of WFSL.This is why we maintain links with the victims. WFSL talks directly to women and are able to get first-hand information from them. What we have found in this work is a shift from CRSV as a tool of war during active combat to broader and more entrenched issues like poor relationships between armed forces, former rebels and civilians; breakdown of law and order; and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by victims. Poverty and social exclusion are also serious problems experienced by survivors, and these can lead to further vulnerability to violence. These are all factors that contribute to a continuum of violence from war to peace time: although fighting has ended, violence, suffering, and social challenges continue.

To address this, we must develop a more inclusive understanding of the roots and causes of sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, post-conflict, and peacetime; to include male victims as survivors; and consider the experiences and motivations of perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict and not merely that of survivors. This means taking seriously the fact that women too have been perpetrators of violence. Sexual and gender-based violence are complex and deeply rooted social problems, and exploring these questions helps to undercut victim-perpetrator dichotomies to instead focus on the complex relationships and impacts of conflict and gender.


Piece originally published at Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. 

About the Author:

Rosaline MCarthy is an educator, researcher, trainer, facilitator, gender and human rights specialist who has been involved in organising, facilitating and training on gender equality and human rights issues for over two decades. She is lead researcher for the Conjugal Slavery in War project (Women’s Forum, Sierra Leone) researching on the experiences of victims of sexual violence during the rebel war and ‘Children Born Of War’.