But one of his pronouncements – the imposition of a mandatory life sentence on anyone found guilty of sexual penetration of minors – could actually hurt more than help the fight against the scourge of rape in Sierra Leone. It sounds counter-intuitive, but allow me to explain.
The president has the right intentions. We have all been appalled by the numerous near daily reports of egregious sexual assaults on minors around the country. There seems to be an epidemic of unspeakable sexual debauchery among sections of our population that has rightfully provoked this national outrage. The reports are made worse by the seeming corresponding apathy of our justice system. Who will forget Justice Allieu’s recent mystifying sentence of just 24 hours imposed on a 70-year-old man found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl? Or the many cases like that, where, despite evidence, some perpetrators simply walk away? This culture of institutional impunity has provoked so much anger that some of my friends in the movement have advocated for “death” or “castration” of these monsters.
I understand and share the anger. My life and work has been dedicated to fighting for a world where girls can live in their full power and I run an organization that is dedicated to building a movement to make this happen. I therefore know from experience and the available evidence that fighting rape culture requires a nuanced, multi-faceted strategic approach. The current life sentence imposition, while emotionally satisfying as a visible response, is likely to have perverse outcomes.
First, as I have often said, our society seem to focus only on the extreme cases of headline grabbing child rape while we ignore its’ more dominant forms in our culture. The life sentence prescription risks feeding into a particular perception of rape - that it only occurs in one extreme form and a blanket extreme punitive measure is what is needed as a response. I know this is not the intent, but you have to only follow the conversation on social media to see how this view has taken hold. Sadly, this distorts the nature of the pervasiveness of the culture of rape in our country.
Second and more important this blanket imposition of a life sentence is likely to prevent girls and women from coming forward to report more common occurrences of rape and sexual abuse in communities. Over 2/3 of rape and sexual violence happens with people the victim knows and for children, trusts. A mandatory life sentence increases the burden on families, victims, and prosecutors so much that, evidence from other countries suggests, it actually discourages both reports and convictions.
Because the perpetrator is likely in the “family or social circles”, they are likely to exert a higher pressure on victims and their families to avoid taking matters to the police. Even for the statistically very few that make it to the police, our culture and social practices mean that the social cost of pursuing the case is exponentially higher. Every case in front of the police has an attendant negotiating, pleading, cajoling and in some cases threatening, happening away from the police. A mandatory life sentence increases those pressures and, as it has been proven in other countries, could lead to more abandonment of cases than the already high rates we face.
The lack of any discretion for the judges has also been proven to make it less likely for judges to convict. Take for example a case before a judge where a 22 year old is accused of having “sexually penetrated” a 16 year old girl. Studies in South Africa and Zimbabwe have shown that when there’s a high mandatory minimum that the judges find unfair or excessive, they are likely to acquit the defendant even if they would have found them guilty if they had discretion in imposing relatively lighter or what they perceive as fairer sentencing.
Such an outcome is certainly not what the president and us campaigners had in mind when we advocated for this declaration and the change. To be clear, I do support mandatory minimums to prevent the sort of abuses that I believe were apparent in the Justice Allieu case. But this declaration is imposing a mandatory maximum. We needed a floor to build on and avoid abuse. This is a ceiling. Judges still need guided discretion to apply nuance to the wide spectrum of rape and sexual violence related cases that come before them.
Context is always key. Many applaud the declaration now but may not have thought about the many adverse consequences it could have, including on victims and those who are unfairly accused. Take for example a 17-year-old female who has sex with a 19-year-old male. Under the current laws and with this declaration, that 19 year old could be sentenced to life in prison. That’s not an outcome most would support but is certainly possible with the current declaration.
We also have to remember that over 40% (in some districts way higher) of females are married by age 18. The declaration means any of them could now take their “partners” to court for unlawful sexual penetration and they would be eligible to be sentenced to life in prison. Such outcomes were witnessed in other countries after the imposition of mandatory sentences without regard to the context and without nuance or guided discretion.
There are interventions and actions that are proven to work to tackle the culture of rape. In fact, the President outlined some of them in his declaration - the creation of a specially trained unit in the police to respond to the needs of survivors and complainants, making sure no girl or woman pays a dime for her care and the establishment of a national emergency rape line. My organization, Purposeful and our partners have also called for the establishment of a Survivors Fund and the creation of a Sex Crime offenders’ database among others. Rainbo Centers must be established in every chiefdom in the country. And yes, we need dedicated courts with specially trained officers to make sure that every one accused is speedily charged with multiple related offenses, tried and if convicted, sentenced appropriately – with the possibility of cumulative sentencing for aspects of the offense.
The evidence suggests that on rape and other violence related offenses, the certainty of punishment, way more than the severity, is what leads to deterrence. In fact, as the literature on the death penalty and other severe punishments including life sentences show, these punitive measures often have the opposite effect from deterrence.
My Mende people have a proverb that loosely translates to “the chief should be careful to make laws when he’s angry.” President Bio has taken a bold step and will be viewed favorably in history for his stance on this critical issue of girls and women’s right. In his declaration, he committed to listening to more experts on the issue, to engaging NGOs and exploring other critical actions that would tackle the scourge. As his law officers and our parliamentarians take on this declaration and work on the much needed review of the sexual violence related laws in the country, I encourage them to be guided by the evidence, to consider this issue deeply and more holistically and adopt laws and measures that would stand the test of time.
We need real action against rape and sexual violence in the country. The mandatory life sentence could make the fight more difficult for girls and women, and allies like us in the frontline.