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22 June 2007

Forgotten victims still suffering

A third of women were victims of sexual violence during Sierra Leone's civil war

By Tania Bernath

I was thinking of 17-year old Miatta, as the Special Court’s prosecutor read out the 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity levied at Liberia’s former president, Charles Taylor.

It was the beginning of Taylor’s trial in the Hague for his part in the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone. And Miatta was just one of hundreds of thousands of women who had been brutalized during the conflict.

As part of my work as an Amnesty International researcher, I had met Miatta on my most recent visit to Sierra Leone. But as the prosecutor read aloud the charges, thousands of miles from where she was, I couldn’t help but think: “Was Miatta even aware that procedures had begun?”

Miatta is one of thousands of women and girls, abducted during the conflict, forced into sexual slavery and brutalized. At the age of four, she witnessed members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – which Charles Taylor is alleged to have commanded and controlled – burn her parents, brothers, and sisters alive.

When she was abducted and brought to Kailahun, the eastern most district in Sierra Leone, she was forced to live as a slave among her captors. Now, 17, without the possibility of having children of her own; crippled, and with poor eyesight, she survives with no government assistance, nor reparations from those responsible.

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Her situation is a direct consequences of the sustained rape, torture and sexual violence that she experienced in captivity.

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In 2002 at the end of Sierra Leone’s conflict the Special Court was set up in Sierra Leone. Its aim is to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for the serious violations of international humanitarian law.

In Charles Taylor’s case, the court was moved to The Hague for security reasons. His trial will cover crimes specific to women, including sexual violence, rape, sexual slavery and outrages of personal dignity.

As well as Taylor, the Court is trying nine others, some of whom are also accused of sexual crimes, such as rape and forced marriage. Their judgment will be passed this month.

During the conflict, it is estimated that 250,000 (33 percent of the female population) were victims of sexual violence. Tragically, during the six years that have passed since the conflict ended, many women – the majority living in rural areas – continue to suffer without any support.

They live on the margins of society constantly disappointed with their own government’s failure to acknowledge and address the consequences of these crimes.

Sadly Miatta and the majority of the victims are unaware of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. They have other concerns. Such as their own survival, including strategies to deal with the shame and stigma and ailing health.

These women desperately need many things: medicine; psychological and social support; help with their children’s school fees; access to micro-credit and training in self sufficiency in order to rebuild their lives. Critically they also need to be part of the healing process that justice and reparations can bring.

There is little doubt that greater outreach is needed in the communities where the worst atrocities occurred, as well as greater efforts by the government of Sierra Leone to bring the remaining perpetrators to justice. At the moment this is hampered by the amnesty provision – from the Lome peace accord – which prevents the guilty from being brought to justice.

Finally the issue of reparations also needs to be urgently addressed, ensuring that these women and other victims are provided with legal aid to apply for reparations in national courts.