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CRSV: Sierra Leone

This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

Sierra Leone gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1961. After the death of its first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, in 1964, corruption, mismanagement and electoral violence rose. After Sir Milton Margai, his brother, Albert Margai, took over. Unlike his brother, he chose to use the military to suppress multi-party elections and pursued personal gain at the cost of the state (Gberie 2005). In 1968, Siaka Stevens assumed power when Sierra Leone was still a democracy. However, by the end of 17 years of his rule – a period that came to be known as “the 17 year plague of locusts,” (Ayittey 2011) it became a one-party state. Corruption was rampant, the treasury was bankrupted, the judiciary was bribed, and the legislature was undermined (Pham 2005).

In 1985, Major General Joseph Momo assumed power, maintaining the status quo for the entire span of 7 years of his rule. By this time, the state’s coffers had entirely emptied out to the point that essential commodities were scarce and schoolteachers’ fees could no longer be paid. Aside from wealthy families that could afford private tutors, most of the youth had no access to education. These developments culminated in a weak civil society, the collapse of the education system, and a generation of dissatisfied youth who were taken in by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and its campaign of rebellion (Gberie 2005). By 1991, Sierra Leone was ranked one of the poorest countries in the world – despite having abundant natural resources.

Rich in alluvial diamonds, Sierra Leone also faced what is known as a “resource curse,” where despite its abundant natural resources, Sierra Leone faced the challenge of low levels of economic development. These diamonds played a critical role in fuelling and financing corruption and personal aggrandizement of its leadership (Auty 1993). Coupled with the rampant corruption and inequality within the country, diamonds were also smuggled and traded illicitly, allowing private investors to benefit from it. They also helped the RUF rebels buy arms, as they relied on the funds harvested from these diamond mines to buy weapons and ammunition from Guinea, Liberia, and even the Sierra Leone Army. In effect, the diamonds fuelled and even incentivized the war.

The war culminated in 80,000 refugees fleeing Sierra Leone into Liberia, and 50,000 deaths. Estimates also suggest that a massive number – between 215,000 and 257,000 women faced some form of sexual violence (Reis et al. 2002).

The Prevalence of Sexual Violence

The prime goal of the RUF was to gain access to the diamonds in the country: and in the process, forcibly recruited, killed, injured, and sexually abused and civilians (Human Rights Watch 2002). They burned down neighbourhoods and attacked women from all backgrounds, regardless of their age, social class, and ethnicity.

The violence targeting women took place everywhere: from forests to the marketplace, and even in their houses in front of their husbands and children (Human Rights Watch 2002). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that sexual violence was largely perpetrated by a range of armed groups that included the RUF, the Civil Defence Forces, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, the Sierra Leone Army, and the Westside Boys. Both, pro- and anti-government forces perpetrated sexual violence.

Several women were forcibly abducted by the armed forces and treated as “bush wives.” Many of these women could not return home and families. They had lived away for many years and even had children with some of the commanders. The burden of both stigma and ostracization in their communities forced them to remain where they were – possibly facing some form of abuse on a continued basis.

According to the Human Rights Watch, the extent of sexual violence was much larger than recorded (Human Rights Watch 2003). According to Physicians for Human Rights, 33% of women and girls who reported facing sexual violence also reported being abducted, whereas 15% reported facing sexual slavery, and 9% reported forced marriage (Reis et al. 2002).

The Strategic Use of Sexual Violence

Sexual violence was used in the Sierra Leone Civil war as a means to intimidate and terrorize the population, to break up families and communities, to prevent births, and as a conquest. Rebels used sexual violence to assert dominance, demand compliance, and forcefully recruit or harm several swathes of the population at a time. These measures were aimed at asserting complete dominance over the community they targeted.

The use of rape and sexual violence was also a means to build “bonds” within the members of an armed group (Cohen 2017). Committing rape and sexual violence was seen as a conquest, a matter of celebration – where the men would discuss it among themselves. It was also used as a way to prevent women from reproducing – especially pregnant women who were forced to miscarry through the use of sexual violence (Park 2006).

Women were also abducted and repeatedly gang-raped, and finally “liberated” through “marriage” to a particular commander (Denov 2006). In many instances, such women saw these men as “saving” their lives from being sexually enslaved by multiple men. Some of the women who were abducted were forced to perform domestic and combat roles (Hudson 2013). In some instances, sexual violence was also opportunistic, and not necessarily a strategic tactic.

Judicial redress

The prevalence of sexual violence during the civil war was not only acknowledged, but also prosecuted. The Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were set up to address war crimes. On May 6, 2004, the Special Court for Sierra Leone passed a ruling that acknowledged the systematic and widespread use of sexual violence, forced impregnation, rape, abduction, sexual slavery, and torture, experienced by women and girls as bush wives.

This decision paved the way for the inclusion of forced marriages within the scope of “crimes against humanity.” This was a first in the international criminal law jurisprudence (Park 2006). The Truth Commission also maintained a record of the prevalence of sexual violence during the war. Only 13 people were indicted on charges of crimes against humanity, which included charges for rape and sexual violence.


Auty, Richard M. (1993). Sustaining Development in Mineral Economies: The Resource Curse Thesis. London: Routledge.

Ayittey, George B.N. "A New Mandate For UN Mission In Africa". CADS Global Network. Archived from the original on 25 July 2011. Retrieved 24 December2010

Cohen, D. K. (2017). The Ties That Bind: How Armed Groups Use Violence to Create Social Cohesion. Journal of Peace Research, 54(5), 701-14.

Denov, M. S. (2006). Wartime sexual violence: Assessing a human security response to war-affected girls in Sierra Leone. Security Dialogue, 37(3), 319-342.

Gberie, Lansana (2005). A Dirty War in West Africa: the RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Gberie, Lansana (2005). A Dirty War in West Africa: the RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP.

Hudson, N. F. (2013). Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development. By Megan H. MacKenzie. New York: New York University Press, 2012. 187p. $49.00. Perspectives on Politics, 11(4), 1237-1238.

Human Rights Watch (2002). “‘We’ll Kill You if You Cry’: Sexual Violence in the Sierra Leone Conflict.”

Human Rights Watch. (2003). Policy paralysis: A call for action on HIV/AIDS-related human rights abuses against women and girls in Africa. Human Rights Watch.

Park, A. S. (2006). ‘Other inhumane acts’: Forced marriage, girl soldiers and the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Social & Legal Studies, 15(3), 315-337.

Pham, John-Peter (2005). Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimension of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy. New York: Nova Science Publishers. p. 45

Reis, C., Amowitz, L. L., Hare Lyons, K., & Lacopino, V. (2002). War-related sexual violence in Sierra Leone. Boston, MA: Physicians for Human Rights.

Documented by Kirthi Jayakumar

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