Silence, shame, and the rape of girls in Sierra Leone #InternationalDayoftheGirl
L is 5 years old. She is sitting in a wheel chair at the fistula ward at the Aberdeen Women’s Center. Her legs so tiny they have to be strapped so they don’t dangle.
She is paralyzed from the waist down but she wasn’t born this way. L has fistula because she was raped. She was sodomized. The rape was so violent it tore the tissue and muscle between her vagina and her anus. After she was raped she was thrown down a flight of stairs. The fall caused a spinal injury, leaving behind a golf-sized hole on the base of her back.
Instead of reporting to the police her mother, sent L to a village to her grandmother. Suffering from incontinence she was eventually brought back to Freetown. One day she arrived in a taxi at the Aberdeen Women’s Center which is where she is today receiving care.
Her mother did not come with her. Her mother has not come to visit her. Her mother did not report the incident to the police. When her grandmother did come to see L, she said that she fell.
The doctors at the center upon examination found that W had been sodomized. No fall causes that kind of damage to a person’s body. L was raped.
She is not the only child at the fistula ward. Another girl aged 13 who has been treated and has since healed will be discharged today.
Gender based violence against girls and teenage pregnancy are a public health crisis in Sierra Leone.
A third of all maternal deaths here are children under the age of 16. In 2017 Aberdeen Women’s Center alone had over 400 cases of teenage pregnancies, they are the second biggest maternal health care provider in the country. All the services they provide from fistula, to pediatrics, and maternity are free but what they can not do, is to protect Sierra Leone’s girls. They can only treat them.
The work of child protection should be the work of the government and the Sierra Leone Police Force. Families and communities have to see value in the life of girls. It should not be that a 5 year old girl is raped and there isn’t hell to pay. Sierra Leoneans have to look deep within our national conscience and root out the rot.
Every year 1000 girls are raped in Sierra Leone according to UNICEF. However, the Rainbo Centre a rape crisis outfit with offices across the country says that they get an average of 6 rape cases reported a day. Two thirds of the rape cases that they get are girls 0-16. Over 50% of that is children under the age of 12.
Today is the International Day of the Girl and what I want to ask is this: What kind of society does not protect its children? The Family Support Unit at the Sierra Leone Police in the past got as little as $800 a year from the national government to do its work around issues affecting abuse. Clearly this is not working. This is a travesty.
What will happen to L and other girls like her? The Aberdeen Women’s Center will provide care for L for as long as she needs it. They estimate that she may be discharged in 6 months. However, she will need to live near their facility or a hospital for a long time as she could develop an infection which if not looked after could kill her.
The parents did not report the rape but the center has. In addition, they have reached out to a lawyer who says she will take this on through L.A.W.Y.E.R.S.
We need justice for L but we also need protection for all girls in Sierra Leone.
In the discourse about the state of girls we often put education first, but we are in a state of crisis. The rape of girls in Sierra Leone and teenage pregnancy is to me a public health emergency. Before school, before anything else we need to protect our girls. We need to cherish our girls.
L’s mother was given an ultimatum. Her new husband for whom she has just had another child told her it was either she got rid of L or she would lose him. She chose her husband. She has not been to see her daughter at the center. She has abandoned her.
I want to know what has happened in this woman’s own life. Who or what robbed her of her humanity. Who told her she had no value and in turn that her child has none. This is not how mothers are in Sierra Leone.
When I was a girl my grandmother protected me like a hawk. You couldn’t look at her grand kids twice. We weren’t allowed to go buy bread after sunset. We weren’t allowed to play were we were not seen. I grew up loved and above all else protected in this same place that has failed to protect L.
Perhaps it was because my grandmother herself was a victim of rape. They didn’t call it that back then but what do you call it when a man takes a girl at age of 15 and violates her. After he raped her because he had “spoiled her”, my grandmother then had to marry her rapist. This is how it was and to some extent still is now.
She went back to live with him. She became his third wife. My mother is a product of that rape.
As soon as my mother was born, my grandmother at age 16 left her husband, and ran away back to her family. The dowry was returned to her husband, the marriage was dissolved. She would remarry later to the man I grew up to know as my grandfather who raised my mother as his own. My biological maternal grandfather was a rapist.
A lot of us have rapists in our family to this day. But we have to break this burden of shame that we carry. If someone hurts a child in your family, violates them, and rapes them, the shame is not on you. The shame is on them. Report it to the police. Get justice for your child.
Every uncle, cousin, father, brother, family friend, who we allow to go unpunished is being given the freedom to violate another girl. How many girls’ life must be destroyed this way?
On this International Day of the Girl I only have a request.
We need to protect our girls, and when we fail to protect them, we need to get justice for Sierra Leone’s girls.