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All women in Sierra Leone are at risk for sexual assault, and 9% of these women will suffer this type of abuse sometime during their lives. However, war makes a bad situation even worse. When war-related sexual assault is taken into account, the lifetime risk of being sexually assaulted in Sierra Leone almost doubles.

Many areas of the world face humanitarian emergencies. Sierra Leone has been one of them.

Sexual assault is one among other types of human rights abuses. But what is the nature of these types of assaults? Where do they occur? How long do they last?

Figure 1. Location of Sierra Leone

The answers to these question are critical since knowing these things can guide local policy decisions and humanitarian relief efforts.

Researchers interviewed 991 women in Sierra Leone about their experiences of human rights abuses during Sierra Leone's conflict from 1991 to 2001. Not only is sexual assault extremely traumatic, but rehearsing the events can be traumatic as well. So, the authors were especially careful to protect the women and to be sensitive to the possible trauma of recounting their experiences.

Sexual Assault Makes up a Large Part of Reported Human Rights Abuses

First, it is difficult to be sure what the true rates of sexual assault are. Being the victim of assault can shroud the woman or man with a stigma and disrupt relationships. Some victims are afraid of risking retaliation if they admit the abuse.

Of the 9166 household members on whom information was gathered, 1157 admitted experiencing some form of war-related human rights abuse, including sexual assault. This involved various kinds of abuse:

  • Abduction (9.3%),
  • Sexual assaults (on family members, 4%; on women interviewed, 9%),
  • Beating (7%),
  • Killing (4%),
  • Torture (2%),
  • Forced labor (1%),
  • Gunshot wound (1%),
  • Bodily injury (for example, stabbed, burned or cut) (0.9%),
  • Amputation of limbs or digits (0.2%).

So, even though the most frequently reported human rights abuse was abduction, the authors tell us that the rates of sexual assault is probably underestimated since women who are abducted may experience sexual assaults that go unreported. In fact, 20% of the respondents who were sexually assaulted said that they had been sexually assaulted while abducted.

Also, even though respondents reported that 4% of household members had been sexually assaulted, 9% of the women who were actually interviewed reported that they had personally experienced war-related sexual assault. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the rates of war-related sexual assault upon household members is higher than 4%. Household members may have hidden experiences of sexual assault from the respondents, or respondents may have been less willing to expose a household member to the stigma of being a victim of sexual assault.

In light of all this, the authors say that upwards of 11% of female household members could be victims of war-related sexual assault.

Prevalence of Sexual Assault beyond the Survey

In addition to the number of women in their survey who reported war-related sexual assault, the authors also asked women internally displaced by the war about non-war-related sexual assault. They found that about 9% of these women were sexually assaulted sometime in their lifetime, and this is in addition to the 9% who will be sexually assaulted in a war time situation. When both of these types of sexual assault are combined, the rate jumps to 17% (1% of Sierra Leonian women will experience both types of sexual assault). If this number is applied to the larger population of internally displaced women, there are an estimated 94,000 to 122,000 women in Sierra Leone who have suffered this form of abuse.

What do these numbers tell us about the rate of sexual assault on all women and girls in Sierra Leone? The authors can only estimate these numbers. Based on the findings of their survey, they estimate that as many as 215,000 to 257,000 women and girls in Sierra Leone have suffered some form of sexual abuse.

In short, all women in Sierra Leone are at risk for sexual assault, and 9% of these women will suffer this type of abuse sometime during their lives. However, war makes a bad situation even worse. When war-related sexual assault is taken into account, the lifetime risk of being sexually assaulted almost doubles.

Bottom Line

The authors report that 9% of the internally displaced women they interviewed in Sierra Leone reported being sexually assaulted as a result of the war. They say, however, that this is probably an underestimate. The actual rate may be upwards of 11%. People internally displaced by the war suffer a range of war-related human rights abuses. For women, rape is one of the most prevalent types of human rights abuses.

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.
Full Text Availability:
Full text available at

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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