Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex is visiting Sierra Leone to learn more about the important work being done to support survivors of sexual violence in conflict and to highlight the importance of women's participation in politics, security and justice.
A civil war between 1991 and 1992 led to widespread cases of rape. The violence was brutal and affected an estimated 275,000 women and girls. The country has successfully transitioned to a sustained period of peace following the conflict.
There is a continued need for support to be provided to all survivors of sexual violence and to tackle the stigma. UK Aid is playing an important role in empowering girls and women to have greater choice and control over their bodies and lives.
At the start of her two day visit to Sierra Leone, The Countess of Wessex visited the Sierra Leone Peace Museum, in Freetown, the country's capital city. The Countess was briefed on the history of the civil war and the scale of the sexual violence perpetrated during the conflict. Her Royal Highness then met privately with two survivors to hear about their experiences and how it has continued to affect their lives to this day. Rape and other forms of sexual violence were widespread during the conflict .
The Sierra Leone Peace Museum is on the site of the Special Court of Sierra Leone. The museum stands as a permanent record of the conflict. A Special Court was set up in 2002 to prosecute those who ‘bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law’. Its purpose was to address serious crimes against civilians and UN peacekeepers committed during the country’s decade-long civil war (1991-2002).
The Countess was shown the complete archive of the Special Court, a unique collection of primary evidence from the trials. The files contain survivor and witness accounts, as well as transcripts from the court proceedings. The archives are preserved for human rights records and to protect the history for future generations.
Her Royal Highness later joined a discussion with female representatives from the security sector who spoke about the important role women play in bringing peace to Sierra Leone. In 1994 they started organising marches to put pressure on authorities and the international community, which was vital in bringing an end to the conflict. The UK government has supported efforts to reform the security sector.
In the afternoon The Countess called on the Vice President of Sierra Leone, His Excellency Dr Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh and Ms Manty Tarawalli, Honourable Minister for Gender and Children’s Affairs, who leads on the Government’s response to sexual and gender based violence. The Countess heard about the progress made in national development and security since the civil war ended and the Government’s current priorities for the country, including support to survivors and preventing future incidents of sexual and gender based violence. The Government has committed to promoting gender equality and empowering and protecting the rights of girls and women.
The Countess of Wessex began the second day of her visit to Sierra Leone at Russell Technical School; a secondary school benefiting from UK government support through the DFID programme Leh wi Learn (Let us Learn). The Countess was shown around by the school principal Mr Joko Venn and handed over solar radios to students to be used for life skills education.
The radios are pre-loaded with lessons on topics including reproduction, family planning and sexual and physical violence, to help students to understand, identify, prevent and report sexual and gender based violence (SGBV).
Her Royal Highness also joined a learning club in session to see how students are increasing their knowledge of SGBV prevention and talking about gender equality. The Countess heard how the school safety committees have helped to make schools safer places to learn.
Despite steady progress in reaching gender parity at primary and secondary school, the challenges to a girl’s learning are still impacted by harmful social norms and attitudes. This restricts life options, and often makes girls more vulnerable to risks including early marriage, pregnancy and SGBV and threatens their hopes of an education if they drop out of school due to pregnancy or stigma.
The UK government is working with schools in Sierra Leone to provide a quality education and has trained close to 7,000 teachers to increase safety and gender equality in classroom. The Leh Wi Learn programme has also distributed more than 180,000 menstrual hygiene products and trained girls on their menstrual health.
This is supporting girls to stay in school during their periods. The support includes provision of written safety guidelines and support to school’s safety committees. These committees, made of teachers and community members, aim to identify, report and resolve incidents of violence or harmful behaviour, making schools a safer place for girls.
Later in the morning, The Countess visited the Tombo Health Clinic, a health centre also benefiting from UK support, which aims to provide better family planning services to women. In Sierra Leone over 20% of girls between 15 and 19 years old are pregnant or have had their first child, and a quarter of women of reproductive age want to use family planning, but do not have access to it. In the past year, the UK has helped to support over 120,000 adolescent women to access family planning services in Sierra Leone. The Countess was shown the facility and heard how improving access to suitable reproductive health information saves lives.
In the afternoon, The Countess visited the Aberdeen Women’s Centre. Primarily a maternal health hospital, the centre is increasingly supporting survivors of sexual and gender based violence, including young children. The Countess met with hospital management, medical staff and social workers to hear about the treatment and support they offer patients and the challenge of bringing justice to perpetrators, particularly as a result of the stigma which prevents some cases from being reported.
Her Royal Highness visited a ward and met recently treated children and spent time talking privately with adult survivors.
At the end of the day, and the conclusion of her visit to Sierra Leone, The Countess paid a visit to Freetown’s King Tom Commonwealth Cemetery to lay a wreath in recognition of those who served in the First and Second World Wars.