Nina Devries

Ebola drives increase in sexual violence in Sierra Leone, experts say

Stigma, closed schools and lost jobs and family have left many women and girls vulnerable to violence and exploitation

This is the second in a two-part series examining the human rights and health implications of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. The first part documented the growing hunger in the country as a result of quarantines.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — When her mother died from Ebola in November, 23-year-old Rebecca Kamara found herself alone, unemployed and hopeless, with a 9-year-old brother to care for. Still, when her landlord offered to give her a pass on rent in exchange for sex, she said no.

Then he raped her.

While sexual assault and violence against women were already problems in Sierra Leone, police reports indicate and experts say that the Ebola outbreak has made women more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and violence, leading to a significant increase in sexual assaults.

People in Kamara’s community shunned her and her brother after their mother died, a common reaction in the region to those connected to Ebola.

“My friends, they would ignore me or mock me,” said Kamara. “When I went to them for support, they said I should go away. Even my own uncle didn’t want to see me. I don’t have anybody.”

She had been working as a teacher in Freetown, but in July schools were shut down nationwide in a bid to stem the spread of the virus. She was left with no income, wondering how to care for herself and her brother. She is one of many women left vulnerable because of the outbreak’s social ramifications. Reported Ebola cases appear to be on the decline, but the virus but has killed nearly 10,000 people in West Africa.

According to a police report obtained from national human rights organization Humanist Watch Salone, there were 2,201 sexual assaults reported in 2014 — up from 1,485 in 2013. An added concern is that the Ebola can be transmitted through semen for up to three months after men recover from the virus, according to the World Health Organization.

Christopher Braima, the national coordinator for Humanist Watch Salone, said it estimates that sexual violence cases have increased 40 percent since the Ebola outbreak began over a year ago.

Experts said many girls have been left vulnerable by deaths of their caretakers and from the school closures.

Marie Koroma, 18, is four months pregnant. Her mother suffers from anxiety related to the outbreak and is unable to work. After Koroma’s high school closed, she was left idle. She met a 36-year-old man who lured her into having sex in exchange for money.

“My boyfriend was a big, important man, and nothing goes for nothing. I was seeing him because he was helping me and my mom by giving me money,” She said. “My mother was crying when she found out, because I was the only daughter in school, and now there is no hope.”

Koroma said that the baby's father told her he would give her some money while she is pregnant but she would be on her own after the baby is born.

Shumon Sengupta, the country director of reproductive health service Marie Stopes, said the incidence of girls and women exchanging sex for money has increased dramatically during the outbreak. He estimates that there has been a 50 percent increase in teenage pregnancies in the last year.

He said many girls who could no longer attend school started trying to earn money by selling goods at the market. “They have to earn money and sometimes can’t with selling, so they enter into a sexual relationship with a man to get a payment,” he said.

“Some of the girls who came to our clinics say they were [sexually] assaulted when they went out to work in markets because they were alone and were not going to school. The more girls are out of school, the more they are vulnerable,” Sengupta added. “A lot of these girls have lost their childhood for good.”

Ambrose Franklin Kobi, an employee at NAMEP, a local nonprofit providing temporary housing for homeless women and children, said the increased stress brought on by the outbreak may be increasing violence generally, with women and girls often the victims.

He said one woman in a community near Freetown told him that her husband beat her when she suggested he get an Ebola test because he had a fever.

“People are more aggressive now, and if someone accuses them, whether true or not, they are thinking of stigma, and that lingers for quite some time. Ebola can have a psychological effect. People will begin to shun you. They want to go away from you. Even if is not true, the rumors are already there,” he said.

According to international organization the International Rescue Committee, marital rape is also on the rise as a result of Ebola. Kobi said he was told of a case in which a male Ebola survivor raped his wife before the three-month waiting period ended. She caught the virus and died.

Marital rape, while illegal in Sierra Leone, is common and rarely reported, according to women’s rights advocates. Tania Sheriff, the executive director of local organization the Rainbo Initiative, which is supported by the International Rescue Committee, said, “There is a stigma, a shame for these women. Many are told to keep it quiet and within the family because they are so financially dependent on their husbands.”

Compounding the problem, the Ebola epidemic also shut down many health and judicial services for survivors of sexual violence. Many hospitals and clinics turned their attention to fighting the virus or shut down.

Braima said that even before the outbreak, there were few centers devoted to helping sexual assault survivors.

“There is a great need for additional centers and clinics in the country, considering the rate of incidents of sexual assault,” he said. “I suggest for each district in Sierra Leone to have at least one center or clinic to offer help for sexual assault victims.”

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Africa, Sierra Leone

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