During Sierra Leone,s civil war, rebel forces used rape as a terror tactic and forced many women and girls to act as sexual slaves ("bush wives"). Underreporting of gender-specific human rights abuses that were systematically committed throughout the civil war has resulted in a programming gap among international humanitarian and reconstruction assistance projects. Today, almost no medical or psychological services exist for the thousands of women and girls who were raped or forced into sexual slavery after being abducted. Traditional practices and the lack of structured economic and legal empowerment programs for women prevent bush wives from leaving their 'husbands' and war widows from accessing their marital land or rebuilding their war-torn homes if access to the property has been granted.
The underreporting of conflict-related crimes against women, as well as instances of domestic violence and results of harmful traditional practices (including discriminatory laws on inheritance), demonstrates the need for increased capacity among local human rights organizations and women's groups to document women's rights violations and elaborate strategies to redress them. The IHRLG Sierra Leone team's women's rights capacity building program is focused on increasing knowledge of legal rights among women at the community level; recognition within the civil society community of the prevalence of traditional practices that are harmful to women and identification of domestic violence as a human rights issue; and integration of gender-based human rights into the work of Sierra Leone's leading human rights groups.
The advocacy component of our women's rights program in Sierra Leone is directed toward the international human rights community and the country's transitional justice and reconciliation. To improve national and international awareness of the specific circumstances of women victims of human rights violations, IHRLG facilitates international advocacy on improving protections for the human rights of Sierra Leonean women and encourages NGO involvement in local, national, regional and international networks addressing women's rights.
To ensure women's full participation in and benefit from the country's transitional justice and reconciliation processes, IHRLG is cultivating NGOs' ability to scrutinize the gender inclusiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Special Court, and the effectiveness of those transitional justice mechanisms in addressing gender-specific human rights violations under the terms of their mandates.
Recent IHRLG women's rights activities include
- Facilitating the establishment of the Women's Task Force on the TRC and Special Court, whose members are drawn from local women's groups, UN agencies, the Sierra Leonean Police force, the media, and the legal profession.
- Scheduling a radio interview with disinherited widows, women victims of sexual violence and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (who focused on her mandate, the persistence of violence against women in Sierra Leone and the mutually-exacerbating relationship between the denial of women's inheritance rights and the pan-Africa HIV/AIDS epidemic).