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A study of persons displaced in Sierra Leone as a result of the civil war reveals that sexual assault was a common form of human rights abuse. Authors provide a description of the nature of these sexual assaults.

War-related sexual assault is a common form of human rights abuse in Sierra Leone. However, just knowing the rate of sexual assault does not provide enough information for humanitarian aid workers and policy makers to be able to address this atrocity. To be able to meet the needs of these women, and to protect them (and others) from further abuse, relief agents need to know the answer to questions such as:

  • Where does war-related sexual assault occur?
  • Who are the perpetrators?
  • How long does this sexual assault generally last?
  • What are the different types of sexual assault?
  • What are the consequences of war-related sexual assault?

Ninety-four of the 991 women interviewed said they had personally experienced some type of war-related sexual assault. The authors report the characteristics of sexual assault based on the experiences of these women.

Where Does War-Related Sexual Assault Happen?

War-related sexual assault most commonly occurs in the women's home town or village. It is much less frequent in IDP camps or towns (1% of the time). Sexual assault while fleeing or being abducted happened to about one-fifth of the women. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Location of War-Related Sexual Assaults

Who Are the Perpetrators in Sierra Leone?

The women were not always able to identify their perpetrators. However, in 66% of the cases the women were able to identify the affiliation of those who assaulted them.

When the identity of the perpetrator was known, members of one of the rebel groups were most often identified. Sexual assault by members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group were by far the most common (40% of the cases). Other rebel groups identified were:

  • The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (2%),
  • The West Side Boys (2%),
  • The Former Sierra Leonean Army (0.4%).

In 16% of cases, the women knew that the aggressors were affiliated with some rebel group, but they could not identify which group.

While sexual assault by members of rebel groups was most common, other groups were involved as well, though to a much lesser extent. These groups included government forces (members of the Sierra Leonean army [1%] and civil defense forces [0.4%]), as well as peacekeeping troops (Economic Community of West African States [0.1%] and UN Mission to Sierra Leone [0.02%]). In 4% of the cases the perpetrators were from a combination of groups.

How Long Does War-Related Sexual Assault Last?

Episodes of sexual assault often occur over a length of time. For instance, a woman who is abducted may experience sexual assault over the course of weeks or months. While 60% of the women experienced sexual assault for less than one week, the other 40% experiences the abuse for longer:

  • 18% from one week to one month,
  • 11% from one to six months,
  • 11% over six months.

See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Length of Time Women Experienced War-Related Sexual Assault.

What Are the Different Types of Sexual Assault?

War-related sexual assault takes many forms. They range from rape (reported by 89% of the women) to “insertion of a foreign object” (4% of women). Often, women do not experience only one type of sexual assault, but are abused in multiple ways. The Sierra Leonean women reported the following types of war-related sexual assault:

  • Rape, 89% of the women,
  • Being forced to undress (37%),
  • Abduction (33%),
  • Gang rape (33%),
  • Sexual slavery (15%),
  • Molestation (14%),
  • Forced marriage (9%),
  • Insertion of a foreign object (4%).

What Are the Consequences of War-Related Sexual Assault?

As we saw, experiences of war-related sexual assault are often more than single instances. Often, the sexual assault can take many different forms over an extended amount of time. If a single instance of sexual assault is brutal and gruesome, then the extended experiences of some Sierra Leonean women are truly hideous.

What are the consequences of these experiences for the displaced women of Sierra Leone? The women who were interviewed reported a range of consequences resulting from the abuse:

  • Bodily injury or disability, reported by 51% of the women,
  • Sexually transmitted disease (34%),
  • Reproductive complications or miscarriage (20%; the authors also report that 23% of the women reported being pregnant at the time of the abuse),
  • Stigmatized or rejected by their family and/or community (15%),
  • Fear of sexually transmitted disease or contracting AIDS (9%),
  • Pregnancy following the assault (6%),
  • Some other consequence (20%).

In the interviews, the women were able to identify more than one consequence. It is clear from the above numbers that many or most did.

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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