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Women victimized by war-related sexual assault in Sierra Leone are acutely in need of assistance. They also face chronic human rights challenges. Researchers asked these women about their immediate needs for assistance as well as their more general beliefs about women's rights and roles in Sierra Leone society.
 

Sexual abuse is a common, perhaps one of the most common, forms of war-related human rights violations. In a study of of human rights violations during the civil was in Sierra Leone, 9% of women reported being sexually assaulted as a result of military conflicts. However, because of the fear of carrying the stigma associated with speaking about sexual assault and because of fear of reprisal, many women do not reveal that they are victims. The rates are likely much higher.

But, what can be done to help these women and girls? How do they cope with the abuse?

In a survey of 991 women in IDP settlements in Sierra Leone, authors asked the women how they coped and what assistance they thought would be most helpful after an assault.

How Do Victims of War-Related Sexual Assault Cope?

Ninety-four of the 991 women interviewed admitted to being sexually assaulted. Researchers (who were highly trained to protect the identify of these women and to be sensitive to discussing their traumatic experiences) asked the women about different strategies they had used to cope with the abuse. The women identified a number of different ways of dealing with the trauma:

  • 46% said that they just forgot about it,
  • 35% said that they drew from the support of their family,
  • 33% said that they turned to a healthcare worker,
  • 32% sought help from a traditional healer or country medicine,
  • 19% had discussions with family members.

But, how well do these strategies work? Based on the responses of these women to the question about what assistance they thought could help, it is clear that women's existing strategies are not sufficient.

What Are the Assistance Needs of Respondents Who Were Sexually Assaulted?

The women who were interviewed were presented with a range of assistance services and asked what services they thought would help them deal with the trauma and consequences of war-related sexual assault. The women identified the following types of needs:

  • 91% of the women identified humanitarian assistance and/or food and shelter,
  • 95% said that they required medical assistance,
  • 87% wanted some way to generate income,
  • 83% said that support groups with other women were needed,
  • 79% would like to have religious counseling (82% identified themselves as Muslim, 17% were Christian, with the rest answering “other”),
  • 84% of the women wanted some form of skills training,
  • 72% wanted health care counseling,
  • 48% said that traditional ceremonies would be helpful,
  • 41% cited the need for more education,
  • 34% said that they would like to receive help from a traditional healer or from country medicine.

A few patterns jump out from this list:

The sample of women who were interviewed were refugees internally displaced by the conflict. In the first instance, coping with sexual assault would be made easier if the basic needs of the women and their families were taken care of. It is easier to cope when you are not also plagued by the lack of food, unsafe living conditions, and lack of medical care.

The victims also looked beyond their immediate situation to future security. They wanted some way to earn a living and receive the training to do this (through skills training or more education). Being the recipient of humanitarian assistance was, from the women's perspective, only a short term solution.

But, the women also sought to reestablish traditional and community ties. One of the insidious effects of sexual assault is that it not only demoralizes the individuals, but it also damages and sometimes dissolves relationships the women draw on for emotional wellbeing. So, such things as religious support, traditional ceremonies, building ties with women with similar experiences and traditional healing methods were important.

Victim's Views of the Larger Issues of Women's Rights and Roles in Society

Coping with the acute trauma of sexual assault is critical. But, what about the longer term rights and roles of women in Sierra Leone? What were the women's attitudes about these issues? What would they like to see changed?

A very high proportion of the women who were interviewed wanted to see legal protection for the rights of women (87%), and nearly all the women said that females should have the same access to education as men and boys (94%). However, the situation is more complex that this.

Tension between Expanded Rights and Local Values

As with these women's attitudes about their needs, their list of attitudes and beliefs betrays the tension between women's desire to have expanded rights and roles and the value that these women place on traditional local values and practices.

Even though 82% said that women should be able to express themselves, 81% said that a good wife obeys her husband even if she disagrees. Sixty-one percent believed that a man has the right to beat his wife if she disobeys,

A large proportion of women wanted more say in their role as mothers and wives, whether in the form of more say in the number and spacing of children (70%), the desire for more education on reproductive issues (86%) the right to refuse sex with her husband (74%) or in the desire for more education about women and girl's rights to refuse sex (71%). However, this attitude was balanced by the belief that it was a wife's duty or obligation to have sex with their husband even when she did not want to (65%). Most of the women said that family problems should be discussed only within the family (78%).

As with the women's attitudes about assistance, attitudes about women's rights and roles display a tension between the desire for more secure rights and broadened roles and value of more traditional, local values.

Bottom Line

Victims of war-related sexual assault in Sierra Leone used a number of strategies to cope with the trauma of sexual abuse. However, these coping strategies were not sufficient. When asked, these women identified different types of assistance that they would also like to have. Likewise, most of the women believed that they should be given more legal rights and larger roles in family decision making.

However, the victims' opinions about what assistance would be helpful and their attitudes about women's rights revealed an underlying tension. On the one hand, the large majority of women wanted expanded rights, increased access to education and the opportunity to be financially secure. On the other hand, the majority also valued local and traditional methods of assistance and held to local family beliefs and values.

 
Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

The authors interviewed 991 internally displaced women from three IDP camps and one town in western Sierra Leone. The districts in which these IDP locations were set represented about 91% of the total IDP population. These women provided information on 9166 household members.

The authors gathered their information using structured interviews and questionnaires. Interviewers were highly trained to be able to gather the information in a way that not only protected the women they interviewed, but was highly sensitive to the trauma the women had experienced.

Method of Analysis:

The authors used a cross sectional, randomized design to identify women to interview within the IDP settlements. Chi-square analysis was used to test for associations among categorical variables, analysis of variance was used to test for differences between means, and the Kruskal-Wallis test was used to test medians. All significance levels were set at P<0.05.

Funding Sources:

  • The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone,
  • The Morton K. and Jane Blaustien Foundation.
 
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Reference

Amowitz L, Reis C, Hare Lyons K, et al. 2002. "Prevalence of War-Related Sexual Violence and Other Human Rights Abuses Among Internally Displaced Persons in Sierra Leone." JAMA 287: 513-521.

 
 
 
 
 
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