October 2, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara

A third-year student, Lamin Kamara is in a police cell in Freetown for an alleged sexual penetration, one of the most felonious crimes known to Sierra Leone’s legal system. He has spent more than three days in police custody as investigation is on-going. Victim aged 16 is also a pupil in one the secondary schools in Freetown.

Both have been in a romantic relationship for months, and none had any thought of what really constitutes the age of a child. Neither suspect nor victim realised that 18yrs is the legally recognised age. Lack of knowledge about the age of victim hits   suspect hard as he awaits arraignment.

Sierra Leone is a secular and not a theocratic state making it hard for victim to face any rebuke.

In a brief interview, Kamara sounded completely clueless of the age of victim, but ignorance of the law is no excuse.

He appears remorseful, but the remorse cannot take him out of the cells.

Kamara battles with a very serious allegation which will see him months in detention if sufficient evidence is adduced against him. He will only see the light of day only when he comes to the court, or is set free.

Kamara may fit into the writings of a famous lawyer of the centuries, Sir Matthew Hale who argued that the offence of sexual abuse is easy to be made, but hard to prove, but harder to be defended on the party accused though innocent.

The offence formerly known as unlawful carnal knowledge under the laws of Sierra Leone principally rests on the age factor. Prior to the enactment of the sexual offences law, the age of a child stood at 13 and 14.

This means, a person could be roped in for the offence only if they have an affair with a child either below age 13 or 14. This age which has persisted for years is widely known by many Sierra Leonean men.

A number of persons accused of sexual abuse were prosecuted based on that age as it is the key element of the offence. Consent does not matter. The law assumes that at ages 13 and 14, victim is too young and immature to know the consequence of an act she goes into.

The assumption discards any defence of consent on the party accused. The assumption is very much germane to the cardinal judicial principle of Doli Incapax (Incapable of committing a crime). The principle is upheld by the Child Rights law which says age 14 is not an age of criminal responsibility.

Age 14 for the sexual abuse continues, but there was a disparity between domestic and international laws. The local law puts the age of a child as below 14, while the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989 puts the age of a child as below 18.

Owing to the disparity, there was a big clamour for harmonisation of the victim’s age in the two laws. The outcry was heard when parliament in the promulgation of the sexual offences law in 2012, puts the age of a child below 18.

The promulgation of the sexual offences law changed the offence from unlawful carnal knowledge to sexual penetration. The new age is the main factor responsible for the influx of sexual penetration reports on police desks.

The law on sexual abuse was amended in 2019 owing to the ever-rolling statistics of sexual abuse. Despite the legal metamorphosis on the sexual abuse law, a missing link which has become a weak link is seen throughout the law. The missing link is the absence of a clause that obliges Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs to educate the public on the new age of a child.

The public education scheme which the ministry must employ should not only be on conventional or social media platforms, but through face-to-face engagement in the form of town hall meetings and conferences. The public education scheme must also be taken to the most remote part of the country so that the villagers would know about the age of maturity.

Most studies conducted into the rapid occurrence of the sexual abuse crime has shown that most of those in remote communities are yet to know about the age factor. It is incontrovertible that for years in history, the marriageable age of girls in traditional societies falls within the range 14 and 18 years. Those were the ages girls would have gone through the Bondo society being fully prepared to take up their matrimonial homes.

The Bondo was a cherished and revered rite of passage for girls especially in rural communities. It was a way life of the local people, and those who attempt to deviate lost their status in the community.

The passage of the on sexual abuse law has generated wider debates among Sierra Leoneans who have held fixed and contrary views to age factor. A key stakeholder in one of the rural communities, Yusif Bangura has told this press that age 18 for a girl is an age of maturity years back.

A girl below 18, he went on, could attract the bride-price. Bangura seems not happy with most of the laws passed after the war in Sierra Leone.

“Most of the laws made by parliament after the war were not in the interest of the country. These laws attack the very fabric of the our culture,” he argued.

Apart from the sexual offences law, Bangura also argued that the enactment of the three gender laws (The Domestic Violence Act, the Devolution of Estate Act and the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act) is an affront to the people’s culture.

He disagrees with most of the provisions of those laws. The laws, he said, were made to mesmerise the donor community.

After the war, Bangura continued, Sierra Leone was in dire need of donor aid so that government could provide services to the people.

“It was true that over 60% of the country’s budget was funded by the donor community after the war in 2002. The only way Sierra Leone would attract the much-needed donor funding was to accept the conditionalities of the international community,” he said.

One of these conditionalities, he went on, was to pass laws that reflect the culture of the West. The move to dance to the tune of the donor community prompted the law makers to accept that any person below age 18 is a child. Bangura’s argument is supported by many Sierra Leoneans who have also advanced arguments in disagreement of the age factor.

The low awareness on the age of victim makes a strong case for an accelerated public education campaign by the Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs, the Family Support Unit, civil society and non-governmental organisations in the fight against sexual violence in Sierra Leone.

The public education campaign on the age of victim must be taken to the most remote part of the country.

With such campaign, hope for a reduction of sexual penetration remains high.