"Justifying rape because of the way a woman dresses is
like justifying armed robbery because of poverty and hunger." So spoke Mustapha
Bai Attila, the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s
Affairs in Sierra Leone, on a recent episode of our radio debate programme Tok
Bot Salone
(Talk About Sierra Leone).

Deputy Minister Attila and the President's Gender Adviser Naasu Fofanah at the recording of Tok Bot Salone.

The deputy minister was part of a panel answering questions
from an audience of over 200 people about an issue that has dominated headlines
in Sierra Leone over the past few months.

This is partly because of two high-profile court cases which
have thrown the issue of rape and sexual violence into the spotlight.

The first involved a government minister accused of rape;
the second was the death of a woman, Christiana Juma Jalloh, after a brutal
gang rape in Pujehun district in southern Sierra Leone.

Christiana Juma Jalloh’s uncle was interviewed on Tok Bot
’s sister programme, Fo Rod (Crossroads), which broadcast
packages about the issue from across the country and invited listeners to have
their say by text message.

Over 100 rapes reported each month

Rape and sexual violence statistics in Sierra Leone make for
grim reading. According to the Rainbow Center, an initiative which supports
victims of sexual violence, from January to September this year, there were
over 1,300 rape and sexual violence cases recorded across the country, the
majority of which involved children, some as young as three years old.

Last year, a new sexual offences act protecting victims and
increasing penalties for offenders was brought into law after a long campaign
by women’s groups.  But the same groups
have criticised its implementation.

Such a background meant that this particular Tok Bot
episode proved particularly fiery.

Alongside the Deputy Minister on the panel were the
President’s gender adviser, the head of the arm of police which investigates
sexual offences, and representatives from the advocacy group Legal Access to
Women Yearning for Equal Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS) and Women
in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSAL).

Naasu Fofanah and Tok Bot Salone presenter Claudia Anthony.
The audience had come from all over the country and included
young men and women, religious leaders, human rights activists, students,
journalists and diplomats.  In the chair
was our presenter Claudia Anthony.

Fierce dissent

When Claudia asked the hall whether they thought rape was a
serious problem in Sierra Leone, almost all of the audience agreed. However,
there was space for dissenting voices – which provoked fierce debate.

For example, station manager of the Voice of Islam radio
station, Sheik Fomba Abubakarr Swaray expressed a widely-held opinion in the
country – that rape victims are also somehow to blame: “I think sexual abuse is not a big problem in Sierra Leone,” he said, adding
that in a society where “women are outrageously transparent… rape is sure to be
an issue.”

The response from the audience and the panel was fierce.
Echoing the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs
Mustapha Bai  Atilla’s passionate defence
of the victims, the President’s Gender Adviser Naasu Fofanah also singled out
the culture of silence and secrecy surrounding the issue. “The issue of silence
needs to be tackled seriously because it’s the root of this menace,” she said.  “Until we break the culture of silence, this
issue will not be solved.”

Respect for the victims

She also called on the public to always report cases to the
police, a comment that sparked off a common complaint in the audience. They all
said that rape cases were not treated in enough confidence at the local level
and called for anonymity and more respect for victims. 

Naasu Fofanah told them that because of such complaints, she
had “approached the Attorney General and the Minister of Justice to know how
they are pursuing cases of rape”.

Deputy Minister of Social Welfare Mustapha Bai Atilla also told
the hall that if anyone had a complaint about how the police was treating a
rape case, they should report it directly to him. “Rape against woman is
violence against the state,” he stressed and added that the Sierra Leonean government
is currently working on increasing the jail term for rape from its current
limit of 15 years to 40 years.   

Shift in attitudes

These special Tok Bot Salone and Fo Rod
episodes were broadcast across Sierra Leone on over 30 local stations - and the
feedback has been very positive.

Mariama Dumbuya from the advocacy group LAWYERS welcomed the
opportunity to discuss the issue and called for more programmes on the topic to
raise awareness.

And while we can’t conclusively prove the connection, the
police unit in charge of investigating rape allegations, the Family Support
Unit (FSU) have told us that since the programme and other radio programs, more
people have come forward to report rapes. 

As one
listener, Sange Watana from  Don Bosco
Fambul, a local organisation that supports victims of rape in Sierra Leone,
said, “Rape can only be a big issue if we all stand up and say no to it. The
people of India did the same and it became a worldwide issue.”  

Related links

BBC Media Action's work in Sierra Leone

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