Salesian Girls Shelter Provides Crisis Support and Care for Sexual Assault Victims
May 20,,2013 - Sierra Leone
The statistics are staggering. UNICEF estimates that close to 200,000 women, including young girls and older women, were sexually assaulted during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. And although the war has stopped, the sexual violence against women has not.
Young women are at risk for sexual violence, trafficking and forced pregnancy among other atrocities. Today, one third of girls are forced into marriage and are often sexually assaulted by their husbands before their 15th birthdays. In addition, 90 percent of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation.
In response to this crisis, for the past two years the Salesians at Don Bosco Fambul have been running a Girls Shelter. Here, professional social workers and pastoral workers provide crisis intervention and follow-up care for girls and young women who have been victims of sexual assault. According to a recently published Girls Shelter annual report, staff at the shelter provided crisis intervention services 521 times over the last two years.
The annual report also reveals causes of great concern; the brutality of the violence against the young women and the rising number of sexual offenses against girls under 14 years of age. Among the perpetrators are teachers and religious leaders as well as men who are active in child trafficking.
“Some of the girls were kept like slaves by their tormentors, often for years,” says Salesian Brother Lothar Wagner, social worker and director of the Girls Shelter. “The boldness that characterizes the way the perpetrators act against the girls and young women bears testimony to their grave moral void. Often they do not even regard themselves as criminals but present themselves instead as benefactors.”
In addition, the annual report criticized the investigating authorities and spoke of a “culture of impunity.” One recent case handled at the Girls Shelter was the rape of a 13-year-old girl by five male youth. After five days of intensive medical care the victim died from her injuries. The police have never investigated the case despite repeated demands by Don Bosco Fambul.
Equally alarming was the finding that in 37 separate rape cases the investigation files were demonstrably manipulated by the police or investigations were deliberately delayed. Perpetrators were released from custody and disappeared without a trace, in spite of the incriminating evidence against them. Only a fraction of the accused made it to court to be punished.
Given the lack of police protection, investigation and justice, only four of the 37 rape victims in these cases plan to proceed despite the fact that many of the girls are severely traumatized.
“In addition to the crisis work we do, we also work with girls to focus on safety to help them find ways to try to protect themselves in the hope the trauma is not repeated,” adds Brother Wagner.
The head of the department that oversees a crisis line for children and youth at Don Bosco Fambul reported that anonymous counseling interviews on sexual abuse and rape have skyrocketed in the past year. Close to 745 girls and 34 boys have reported sexual violence and most of the victims do not wish to report the crimes to the police.
In the upcoming years, Don Bosco Fambul plans to intensify both the services at the Girls Shelter and its outreach to victims in Sierra Leone.
The Girls Shelter is one of many programs provided for youth by Don Bosco Fambul. To learn more about Salesian programs in Sierra Leone visit SalesianMissions.org.