What you need to know:
- Officials say the court, which is located within the main court building in the center of the capital city, is intended to build the confidence of victims to get them bring their cases forward by assuring them protection and fair trial.
Sierra Leone has set up a special court to tackle swelling cases of rape as the country battles an epidemic of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
A special room dedicated to only cases of rape and sexual assault was inaugurated by President Julius Maada Bio on Friday in Freetown.
Officials say the court, which is located within the main court building in the center of the capital city, is intended to build the confidence of victims to get them bring their cases forward by assuring them protection and fair trial.
The move is one of several by the government as part of efforts to address the crisis which campaigners say threaten the future of the younger generation.
Sexual violence has been a long time problem for Sierra Leone, stemming from its eleven years civil war, but recently it took center stage amidst reports of increase in incidents involving minors.
The situation got worst in the last two years.
In early 2019, report of the rape of a five-year-old child provoked nationwide protests, leading to the declaration of a state of public health emergency on sexual violence. That led to the amendment of the country’s sexual offenses laws.
But it soon became apparent that the problem goes beyond toughening of the law, to include factors that ensure fair trial and fast track proceedings.
The latest incident occurred last month, when another five year old rape victim died of injuries she sustained from her alleged perpetrators.
There are very few institutions that cater for SGBV victims. A coalition of NGOs run the Rainbow Center, which provides services in just a small part of the country.
Figures from the center indicate that there were 3,701 sexual assault cases reported in 2019. Between January and May 2020, it recorded 1, 270 cases.
Officials say this is just a fraction of the real picture because of under-reporting due to numerous limiting factors.
The new court provides for witnesses to testify behind closed doors. It is set up so that eye contact between victims and accused is prevented.
There is also a facility to accommodate experts who prepare victims and witnesses prior to their testimony. It will also has an information center for SGBV cases.
The special court is the idea of Chief Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards, who said it’s a response to the many problems victims and witnesses faced in testifying during trial, as well as their vulnerability by age and fear of stigmatization.
‘‘The objectives of the court are to provide effective victim/witness support services that will reduce trauma, eliminate secondary victimization, increase victim’s cooperation and attendance at the trial and ensure the timely conclusion of matters,’’ he said at the launch.
President Bio praised the efforts of the judiciary and campaigners, singling out his wife for the role of her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign.
First Lady Fatima Bio has led the fight against SGBV in the last two years through her ’Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign, which has increasingly become a global movement.
President Bio said while all these efforts were being done, there was a need to look for new ways of collaborating to change attitudes and end sexual violence.
“We are a nation of good people. We should be better. We must do more to rid this nation of this menace,” he said at the launch, noting that as a government they had made an “unambiguous statement” that there was no place for impunity and that every perpetrator would be held accountable within the full remit of all existing laws.