Human security in the Mano River Union: Empowering women to counter gender-based violence in border communities

This report looks at an initiative to reduce threats to personal security and to challenge sexual and gender-based violence in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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.