Sierra Leone passes the Sexual Offences Act
After two years of deliberation, in August 2012 Sierra Leone finally passed the long awaited Sexual Offences Act.
It is hoped that this new law will go some way to address the high rates of violence against women – violence that spiked during the 11 year civil war, but still remains unacceptably high ten years on. In fact, studies show that most women in Sierra Leone will be the victims of either sexual or domestic violence at some point in their lives.
The introduction of this bill will help end the culture of impunity that exists in Sierra Leone. Womankind Worldwide supports partner organisations, such as Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace, in Sierra Leone who have been tirelessly campaigning to get this bill passed.
What does the bill do?
The Sexual Offences Act, amongst others, will raise the minimum jail sentence from two years to between five and fifteen years. The Act makes provisions for various types of sexual assault and covers married women, children, and the disabled. It also prohibits forced sex in marital relationships and protects children, especially girls, from being abused by teachers, as well as traditional and religious leaders.
The expanded target group is of particular significance, as 60% of the population live in rural areas where customary (non-formal) laws take precedent over laws passed by the central government.  These laws tend to be discriminatory against women, and in many cases provide justification for men to physically punish their wives under certain circumstances, making domestic violence widely tolerated and underreported.
It also prohibits cases being handled in out-of-court settlements; such as cases where teachers found to be sexually abusing their pupils pay a small out of court payment to the family in lieu of going to court. The expectation is that this law will go a long way to ensuring women survivors receive some measure of justice.
What are the possible road blocks?
While passing the bill is a big step, more still needs to be done to end violence against women, and change people’s attitudes towards violence. Already there have been those that have criticised the new Act as ‘too harsh,’ seeing it as a threat to long held cultural traditions, such as child marriage.
If the bill is to be successful, organisations such as WPJP know that they will need to continue to work with the government to address these discriminatory beliefs and ensure the law is working in practice and has the required resources to be enforced. Womankind’s partners are ready to take up the challenge
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 “Center for Accountability and Rule of Law Welcome Enactment of Sexual Offences Act 2012” Sierra Express Media, 28 Aug. 2012. http://www.sierraexpressmedia.com/archives/46767
 “Sierra Leone” CIA World Factbook, September 2012. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sl.html
Volunteer Morgan Kindberg