Sexual and gender-based violence in the MRU
• Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) has been one of the major legacies of the 14-year (1989-2003) regional conflict in the Mano River Union (MRU) countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Thousands of women and girls as well as many men and boys suffered the physical and psychological trauma of rape and sexual violence during the war, while displaced from their homes or after resettling in communities bereft of formal security and justice provisions. Despite post-war restoration of police and judicial presence and passage of legislation protecting women’s rights, few perpetrators have been prosecuted successfully and a culture of impunity has persisted. Traditional social structures have often tolerated domestic violence and traditional practices harmful to girls in particular. Relative to men, women have had limited opportunities for empowerment through education, economic advancement and inheritance.
• In response to the huge post-war challenges to the security of women and girls, in 2008 International Alert and its partners designed a tri-country initiative to reduce threats to personal security and to challenge the culture of impunity around SGBV. This has targeted war-affected communities in nine border areas, including five in Liberia and two each in Sierra Leone and Guinea. These range from isolated forest towns to major urban centres. The aim has been to empower communities to lobby for more comprehensive and gender-sensitive reporting of SGBV, for more inclusive and gender-sensitive security and justice responses, and for a coherent sub-regional response to violence in border communities.
• The Human Security in the MRU Project has developed culturally- and linguistically-specific programming for a network of community radio stations to challenge local knowledge, attitudes and practices concerning SGBV in order to reduce perpetration and the stigmatisation of survivors. It has developed a network of “animators” in the nine communities, providing information, counselling and advocacy to men and women in order to guide them through prevention and redress actions. Customary authorities, including chiefs, elders and heads of female societies, have been influenced and trained as frontline justice providers as well as opinion formers. In the process, International Alert has learned much about the challenges of accessing justice, formal and informal, and promoting and protecting rights in the three countries and the ways in which SGBV affects men as well as women.
Providing security and accessing justice
• Sierra Leone has made considerable progress in peacebuilding since its war ended in early 2002, but its constitutional structure means that the national government has a very limited presence outside of Freetown, where chiefs and local court chairmen exercise considerable formal and informal authority over political and judicial functions. Despite the passing of gender laws in 2007 and the establishment of dedicated Family Support Units by the police, the under-resourced courts are overwhelmed with sexual and domestic violence cases. Project animators have worked to influence chiefs, traditional court chairmen and religious leaders to increase knowledge and change attitudes concerning SGBV and to curb the harmful effects of some traditional practices.
• Liberia’s post-war reconstruction has prioritised the re-establishment of statutory courts and policing despite crippling financial and logistic constraints and the reliance of most of the rural population on customary institutions. Issues of jurisdiction, particularly over criminal cases, between the parallel statutory and customary legal systems remain unresolved and there is no formal training and little accountability for chiefs in justice provision. Project animators have worked to raise awareness of Liberia’s revised protection legislation and the means by which SGBV victims can access formal justice, shepherding survivors through the court system to secure redress.
• In Guinea the experience with SGBV is different than in Sierra Leone and Liberia; while there has not been a major domestic armed conflict in Guinea, its southern Forest Region was greatly exposed to the conflict in neighbouring countries and continues to experience sporadic localised inter-communal violence. Chiefs have considerable power and influence, although this is not recognised in law. Civil society is weakly developed and there has been comparatively little activism by the state and international actors to challenge behaviour and impunity around SGBV, of which the security forces have been frequent perpetrators. Project animators have confronted a more unstable political context since 2008, but have succeeded in raising awareness of sexual and domestic violence and appropriate redress mechanisms.
Democratisation and demilitarisation in Guinea, decentralisation in Liberia and economic consolidation in Sierra Leone present opportunities for improving practice that challenges impunity and combats SGBV in 2011 and beyond. Supported where appropriate by international partners, the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, civil society and local authorities should build upon progress made in recent years by working to:
• Harmonise laws and legal processes between statutory and customary justice providers to embed legislation that promotes and protects the security and rights of women and children; • Ensure that national laws governing sexual and domestic violence include men as well as women as potential victims of criminal acts;
• Provide adequate resources, including training, salaries and physical infrastructure, for the full functioning of professional circuit/district and/or magistrates courts in all parts of the country;
• Build capacity and awareness among police and medical professionals on the collection and handling of evidence necessary to secure prosecutions for rape and other forms of SGBV;
• Support the work of community advocates or paralegals trained and resourced to shepherd survivors of SGBV through the justice system;
• Train and sensitise chiefs, court chairmen and other customary justice providers in relevant gender legislation, working with them to define their role and responsibilities within an integrated justice system;
• Challenge harmful traditional practices that undermine the security, social status or psychological wellbeing of women and girls, including early, forced or informal marriage, early or forced initiation and female genital mutilation (FGM);
• Promote educational and economic opportunities for women and girls as well as their equal participation in political institutions at all levels; and
• Strengthen the capacities of national and local media to raise awareness and challenge harmful practices and impunity, including through training of female journalists and in gender-sensitive reporting.