THEY came roaring into the village in their jeeps, shooting guns randomly into the air, and waving machetes about; machetes they routinely used to amputate men, women, and children.
Kumba Moore isn’t sure which particular group they were. As the civil war in Sierra Leone raged between 1999 and 2002, the rebels could have been from the Revolutionary United Front, Civil Defence Forces, or the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council.
All the teenager knew was that she and her family had to get away as quickly as possible. For two days, Kumba, her parents, and her three youngers siblings hid in the bush, terrified.
But they needed to eat, and as soon as they attempted to sneak home to grab food, they were seized upon and hauled before the rebel leader, who demanded Kumba as his wife.
“They pointed a rifle,” she said. “And I wanted to save my family.”
And so Kumba was dragged off to become a slave or bush wife — forced to cook, clean, and perform whatever sexual act the rebel leader desired.
It is estimated that 30% of Sierra Leone’s 10,000 child soldiers were girls who had this bush wife role forced upon them, with a great many of them bearing the rebels’ children.
Sexual abuse and rape is rampant in modern warfare. In the words of the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, “it has become more dangerous to be a woman fetching water or collecting firewood than a fighter on the frontline”.
It is estimated that up to 250,000 Sierra Leonian girls experienced some form of sexual abuse during the decade-long civil war.
After about six months of sexual slavery, Kumba managed to escape when a vehicle belonging to one of the rebels broke down on the side of the road. However, having been a bush wife, life isn’t easy in West Africa and many face lasting stigma.
“I always lived indoors. I was not happy. I was ashamed. Most of my family were dead. Then I heard about Caritas on the radio. For two years, I learnt to cook and run a business. I worked in a hotel. Then they gave me a start-up kit. Now I have my restaurant and I employ four people. I also pay for my brother to go to university,” Kumba says.
“I am now really happy. There is now goodwill amongst people to receive me. They prepare food for me. Before I was a liability to my brothers and my family. Now I want to expand my business.”
Kumba knows she was lucky to have been given a chance, and so she wants to give something back. As she lost her parents and brother during the war, she now works to reunite families separated by the conflict. Just recently, the police put her in contact with a young girl who had lost her family. They believed the girl’s family could be in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, and Kumba made the journey south with the young girl. “We put it in the media and we found them. That makes me very happy,” she says.
The Caritas project that Kumba attended in Makeni is supported by Irish Aid, the Government’s aid agency, which is funded by Irish taxpayers. Visiting the project earlier this summer, Joe Costello, the trade and development minister, announced another €50,000 in aid for the diocesan development agency. While male child soliders could avail of the general state-run demobilisation programme which was aimed at re-integrating them into civil society, girl soliders or bush wives could not, as they needed to hand in a weapon to participate.
Caritas Makeni is renowned for its rehabilitation of former bush wives in its “No Girls Left Behind” programme through a combination of counselling and skills education which helps them readjust and become accepted in a post-war society.
There is a growing realisation in developing countries and among non-governmental organisations of the potential of women to rebuild broken countries. Give them a chance and they, like Kumba, will try and do good in their communities.
Last year, Irish Aid gave €7.9m in funding to Sierra Leone. Gender equality, along with nutrition and health projects, is its prime areas of focus. Women are so politically and socially bereft in Sierra Leone that 73% of them believe domestic violence is acceptable. Ireland supports three sexual assault treatment centres in the country. Last year 1,000 women sought medical help and counselling at the units following sexual assault and rape. Some 60% of these were aged 12-17.
Agnes Smith is one of these.
She once lived with her aunt in Bo. An orphan, she had also been separated from her only brother. Every day, she told her aunt: “I want to go to school.”
Eventually her aunt brought her the news she wanted. A local man had offered to house her while she attended secondary school. He had told her aunt it was important she got an education. Delighted, she waved goodbye to her family in Bo. But when she arrived at the man’s home, she found he had a very different future planned for her.
“School is not for women,” he hissed, pushing her into a room. He ordered her to lie down quietly and raped her at knife point.
“He used me,” she whispers with her head bent, stroking her lower arms anxiously.
For the next month, he raped her every day. When he was out of the house, he expected her to cook and clean for his family. Other times, she was locked in her room. His older children were teenagers just like her. If she suggested school, a flood of abusive language and more violence followed.
Agnes managed to make contact with her aunt by telephone, pleading with her to come and rescue her. “I have my own husband,” her aunt replied.
Then one day, the man’s 21-year-old son attacked Agnes. “He beat me, then he flogged me,” she says, barely audible.
When the father arrived back to the house that night, she told him what had taken place. He threw her out the front door with all her belongings. She was now homeless as well as traumatised.
We met Agnes at one of the three Irish Aid-funded Rainbo Centres in Freetown. According to the centre’s management, it is more “socially unacceptable” for children to attend the centre as child abuse is seen as “more outrageous”.
Adult sexual abuse is seen more as something to hide. Also, traditionally in West Africa, rape and sexual assault are not dealt with in the courts. Settlements are made between families, regularly with the help of a local chief and often to the detriment of the woman.
While Rainbo Centres assist victims in going down the legal route, staff at Rainbo say free legal advice needs to be made available if these women are to pursue their perpetrators in court. At Rainbo, women receive a general medical examination where physical bodily damage is recorded.
Again, if the country wants to see these men in court, a forensic medical service is vital and this requires doctors, a resource that is few and far between in a country whose education system was torn asunder during the civil war.
While it is easy to spot the gaping holes in Sierra Leone’s education, health, and social infrastructure, improvements have been made in the past decade. When this country emerged from the war, all state structures had been destroyed. There was no police force and no primary school system, let alone any third-level structure, no network of doctors, hospitals, electricity, or water.
And while efforts are being made to rebuild those pillars of a society, the importance of empowering women has not been lost on politicians. The government passed a Domestic Violence Act five years ago making violence in the home punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
Two years ago, all pregnant women and children under five also became entitled to free healthcare — a move that is certain to reap rewards. Primary school fees, however, still have to be paid — a barrier for many in a country where the average person lives on €1.60 per day.
However, while the maintenance of peace and minimisation of corruption are key to ensuring Sierra Leone achieves a functioning state structure, the development of a society where women are allowed to reach their full potential is also crucial.
This is because in West Africa it is the women who go out and earn the money with which to feed their children: they sell food at roadside stalls, they work the land. Yet, once they return home, culture dictates that earnings are handed over to their partners.
It is also the women who do the lion’s share of the child rearing, so it is women who need to be educated about malnutrition and vaccination, as one in five Sierra Leone children die before the age of five. Goal, with the help of funding from Irish Aid, has been educating young women such as Samuella Sesay in Somalia Town to detect the early signs of malnutrition and to act as breast-feeding advisors in their communities, as a myth abounds in Sierra Leone that newborns should drink water as well as breastmilk. In a country where water treatment is near non-existent, this puts infants at enormous risk.
In the words of the International Rescue Committee, “world leaders speak of women as ‘smart investments’, the answer to the development, health, and security problems of poor, conflict-ridden countries”.
‘They look to me as a role model’
Zeunab Mansaray is like a poster girl for what African women can achieve if given access to an education.
A single mother to two teenage boys, she works for the World Food Programme at the George Brooks Community Health Centre in Freetown which provides nutrition, malnutrition screening, immunisation, and antenatal services to young mothers and their children.
Born in the south of Sierra Leone, she and her family had to transfer to Freetown when the rebels took over the mine where her husband worked. There, Zeunab, her son, and extended family lived in a one-room home as she balanced trying to finish her university studies with working two jobs.
She has since funded her the university education of her brother and sister.
That same sister was named student of the year in her primary, post-primary, and university exams and now works for the Bank of Sierra Leone. Her brother is now completing an MBA.
Every penny she earns is spent on funding the education of her wider family. Her sons are also excelling academically.
“I am the breadwinner and they are looking to me as a role model. I show them that it can be done,” she said. “I am also fighting for my two children so they can manage their own lives.”
She readily admits that she has high expectations of her children. “I don’t want to put money on a duck’s back” she says, meaning she doesn’t want to invest in something unless it pays off.
“I expect my boys to work and study hard.”
Zeunab would now like to travel to the UK to do more studies herself.
“I think it is good for people to not stay in the one area,” she says. “It teaches you about your country’s qualities and it also teaches you about other values that you can bring back to your own country. We need to get an education in Sierra Leone so we have the quality and capability to deliver what our country needs.”
But African women must, Zeunab says, take the first step towards improving their own prospects.
“It is when African men see that a woman is strong that they accept that she is strong. The woman must show she is strong.”
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