While Sierra Leone has come very far in its fight against sexual violence the question of safeguarding victims especially children needs urgent attention.
The child rape victim whose story sparked the outcry that led Sierra Leone to change its sexual violence laws in 2019 has died. Wyuyata Konneh, who was brutally raped at the age of 5, died in Bo on January 23. She was 9 years old. At the 2021 UN General Assembly, President Maada Bio moved for a UN Resolution on survivors of sexual violence. He promised “absolute commitment” to survivors. Wyuyata’s death shows that child rape survivors need long-term safeguarding and protection.
I first met Wyuyata at the fistula ward at Aberdeen Women’s Center (AWC) in October 2018. I had gone there to meet with the Scottish philanthropist who has financed the clinic for a decade. I got there while she was still in a meeting. Her assistant asked one of the doctors to show me around in the meantime.
That’s when I saw Wyuyata, a frail brown-skin girl, with thick long cornrows, her legs so small they dangled. She was in a wheelchair. I asked who she was visiting in the fistula ward (a fistula is usually caused by obstructed childbirth) and that’s when I learned that the 5-year-old in front of me was a fistula patient. She had been raped and sodomized and as a result, had a golf-sized tear at the bottom of her vertebrae. It had left her paralyzed. The doctor had said Wyuyata was going to need long term medical care and support. Her rapist had yet to be reported or charged.
When I left AWC, I was devastated. To process how there could be so much silence around the rape of a 5-year-old girl, I wrote a blog. It was shared over 200 times on Facebook and downloaded and distributed in Whatsapp groups. The story made national headlines. The group, Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (L.A.W.Y.E.R.S.) brought the matter to the police to seek justice for the victim.
In the months after I broke the story, Asmaa James began the Black Tuesday Campaign to raise awareness about child rape. By December the same year, Sierra Leone’s First Lady, Fatima Maadaa Bio, had launched her flagship Hands Off Our Girls Campaign. Four months after I went to AWC, President Julius Maada Bio announced a national emergency on rape on February 9, 2019, acknowledging for the first time that gender-based sexual violence was a “scourge” on the nation.
By July 2019, parliament debated amendments to the Sexual Offenses Act to increase the sentences for those who raped children and other victims of sexual violence. While the government focused on changing the law and expediting prosecution. Wyuyata remained at the Aberdeen Women’s Center where well-wishers would pay her visits. It became a bit of a media fiasco.
One person who took a long-term interest in Wyuyata’s well-being was Asmaa James. She became an advocate for Wyuyata’s care and mobilized resources on her behalf. A year after I met her at the clinic, Wyuyata and her guardian left Sierra Leone for medical treatment in India. They stayed in India for several months and Wyuyata had operations that we hoped would increase her mobility.
The Sexual Offence Act 2019 passed in September that year mandated a minimum 15-year sentence for rape convictions and up to life in prison for child rapists. The government also promised to enhance psychosocial support and protection for victims of sexual violence. They set up a Sexual Offences Model Court to July 2020 to expedite prosecutions.
A month earlier another 5-year-old, Kadijah Saccoh, was allegedly raped and killed. The Rainbo Center, a one-stop for psychosocial support for victims of rape, reported 3,548 cases at their five centers in 2020, 600 more cases than in 2018. Half of all victims were girls 12 and younger.
When Khadijah’s story broke, a coalition of Sierra Leonean advocates and organizations led by Asmaa James, diaspora-based celebrities like Idris Elba, and former CNN anchor Isha Sesay launched a Survivor’s Solidarity Fund to raise money for victims of sexual gender-based violence. Since its inception, the fund has raised $109,000 distributed to four organizations supporting rape victims.
By the time Wyuyata and her mother had returned home, Sierra Leone was grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. She was in better shape but still in need of care. In Freetown, James said she continued to check on Wyuyata until her mother decided to move her back to their hometown Bo, three hours from the capital city. Asmaa says she questioned the decision to move Wyuyata away, but because she was not her legal guardian, she had no say.
James lost touch with the family, although she exchanged phone calls with Wyuyata from time to time. Because Wyuyata’s story had been so widespread, she had become the breadwinner thanks to one foreign-based benefactor. In Bo, Wyuyata would have been away from the doctors and quality healthcare at the Aberdeen Women’s Center where she had been treated for free for months until she left for India.
On January 23, Wyuyata’s mother contacted James to say that her daughter had died in the early hours of the day. The wound had opened again and she was in a lot of pain. Wyuyata was buried before sunset.
Justice was only one part of what Wyuyata needed. She also required protection, perhaps from members of her own family. At a minimum, a social worker should have been assigned to monitor her progress. Anyone who got the details of her story from the beginning would have known that being at home with her mother was not in her best interest.
While Sierra Leone has made significant progress in its fight against sexual violence, when it comes to safeguarding survivors, especially children, there is no system of social protection. Survivors are left to depend on the kindness of strangers. For Wyuyata, that wasn’t enough.