Musu, 23, does not want more children. She has trouble feeding the three she already has. She has paid for this decision with regular beatings and rape by her 45-year-old husband.
“The man was beating me every day, forcing me to give sex every day,” Musu told IRIN from the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, where she is staying with a distant relative after fleeing her husband.
“He wanted me to have more children. He beat me and beat me. I’m tired.”
Musu said the local chief disregarded her pleas about abuse by the man she was forced to marry at age 16. She has not gone to the police “because I don’t have any money. . . . They always ask for money”. Despite recent laws aimed at boosting women’s legal status in Sierra Leone, powerlessness in the face of violence remains an everyday fact of life for countless women like Musu.
In a 1 November report Amnesty International said the legacy of the “unimaginable brutality” against women during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war feeds violence against them today. During the war, some 250,000 women and girls—about a third of the female population—were brutally raped, tortured and kept as sex slaves, the report said.
“Rape is the only war violation that continues to today,” Amnesty’s Sierra Leone researcher Tania Bernath told IRIN.
While experts in Sierra Leone say women are increasingly coming forth to report rape and domestic violence to the police, such crimes are rampant and usually go unpunished.
That is partly for lack of resources for pursuing offenders, but mostly it is custom, rights advocates say. Musu said she reported her situation but was shunned. “Whenever you talk to the chief he will say ‘the man is always right’,” she told IRIN. “That’s the custom.”
It remains the prevailing attitude, according to Jamesina King, chairperson of Sierra Leone’s Human Rights Commission. “It’s typical,” she said of the chief’s reaction to Musu. The rights commission was recently in the north to educate communities about violence against women, and members found that many people are still unaware of women’s rights or disregard their grievances.
Before running away to Freetown, Musu had fled several times to her parents’ home near where she lived with her husband—in the northern town of Kabala some 170km from the capital—but they reprimanded her and persuaded her to return home.
“It’s definitely a man’s world, it’s definitely a chief’s world,” Amnesty’s Bernath said. She said that chiefs have considerable power and those eager to help bolster women’s rights are scarce.
Even in cases where a chief considers domestic violence or sexual assault charges, the approach is generally to mediate in what is considered a family dispute. “There is still this idea that cases should be kept in the family,” Bernath said.
In its recent report Amnesty said this only feeds the problem. “Mediation in rape cases contributes to impunity and facilitates state evasion of the obligation to ensure that violence against women is prosecuted.”
Sierra Leone is a signatory to a number of international conventions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The gender bill passed in July was hailed as giving women unprecedented rights. But Sierra Leone has a long way to go before laws on paper translate into changes in women’s status.
Sierra Leone is one of many countries around the world observing ‘16 days of activism’, beginning on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women until 10 December, International Human Rights Day.
Rights advocates say Sierra Leone is making some progress. Just the fact that communities are talking about violence against women as a problem to be addressed is a significant step forward, the Human Rights Commission’s King said.