We support women and girls in war and crisis zones
14. August 2019 - News

New projects in Western Africa: Tackling sexualised violence across borders

Illiteracy, female genital mutilation or cutting, and rape are all part of daily life for women and girls in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. medica mondiale started its activities in Western Africa in 2006 and is campaigning against sexualised violence in Liberia. In 2015, this campaign led to the development of the independent women’s rights organisation medica Liberia. The expertise from this work in Liberia will now be put to use in the neighbouring countries Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

This year, medica mondiale started to support new women’s rights organisations in Western Africa that campaign for the rights and protection of women and girls. The aim is to build up a network of partner organisations, gathering together experiences and resources and shaping joint projects in a more sustainable  way. This is because sexualised wartime violence and its long-lasting consequences for women, families and society needs to be tackled in a way that transcends borders and boundaries. 

The population of Sierra Leone is generally in favour of female genital cutting

In Sierra Leone, medica mondiale is supporting four new organisations that are strengthening awareness of sexualised violence in the communities, informing girls about their rights and creating places of refuge for women.

In Sierra Leone, female genital cutting* is very widespread. It is accepted as a common practice and is publicly supported as part of the patriarchal culture. When performing this mutilation, perpetrators remove part or even all of the external areas of the woman’s clitoris and labia. Over 80 per cent of the female population have been cut like this. Frequently, the brutal procedure takes place in the context of a ritualistic secret society. This involves separating the girls from their family and friends for several weeks to prepare them for adult life.

An uncut woman is not accepted by society in Sierra Leone and this reduces her chances of marrying. Even educated social classes support female mutilation, playing down the health consequences for the young women. One example is the wife of the President, Fatima Jabbe-Bio: she underwent the mutilation and now publicly supports the cutting of women. Because this ritualistic cutting is also a cost factor for families living in poverty, politicians even sponsor cuttings for girls during their election campaigns so as to gain voters.

School ban for pregnant girls in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, girls have very poor access to education so the illiteracy rate is especially high: over half of girls cannot read or write. Furthermore, a law was introduced in 2015 that prohibits pregnant girls from going to school, which affects a large number of girls since the pregnancy rate for under-18s is one in three.

This school ban for pregnant girls is unconstitutional and the women’s rights organisation Women Against Violence and Exploitation Society (WAVES) is currently bringing legal proceedings against the Sierra Leone government to oppose it. The non-profit organisation Amnesty International is supporting WAVES in this legal case.

Perpetrators become victims in Ivory Coast

In contrast to Sierra Leone, female mutilation often occurs in secret in Ivory Coast. The cutting of girls is seen as a kind of test of whether they have enough strength for adulthood and so it is carried out without any anaesthesia. A law prohibiting female genital mutilation has been in place in Ivory Coast since 1998, but it exists only on paper. Girls and women do not receive any additional protection through legislation.

Survivors of sexualised violence are highly stigmatised  in Ivory Coast. It is almost impossible to report a rape or to punish perpetrators for their violent actions. If a woman tries to accuse a perpetrator publicly after a rape, this can have severe consequences for her and her family. She can be accused of wanting to split the village community and cause trouble. The family of the surviving woman and the woman herself are isolated and ostracised by other female members of the community. This means that survivors of rape have no chance of justice. Instead they have to endure the opposite: an increase in shame and fear.
Organisations currently supported by medica mondiale in Ivory Coast are focussing on the political participation of women and the construction of ‘Peace Hut’ safe houses and advice centres for women affected by violence.

*Out of respect for those affected, it is advisable to choose the expression “cutting” instead of the term “mutilation”, so as not to label the affected women as “mutilated” or to offend them.

Author: Karolina Plewniak, Social Media Editor at medica mondiale

Overview of partner organisations in Sierra Leone:

•    Action Pro
•    Choices and Voices Foundation for Women and Girls (CVF)
•    Girl 2 Girl Empowerment Movement (G2G)
•    Women Empowerment and Association for Progress (WEAP-SL)

Overview of partner organisations in Ivory Coast:

•    Centre Féminin pour la Démocratie et les Droits Humains (CEFCI) Women’s Centre for Democracy and Human Rights
•    West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP)

Related topics

Female genital mutilation in Liberia
Facts and Figures for Western Africa