Police records in Sierra Leone show that after months of court appearances, Janice*, 35, dropped charges against the four men she said gang-raped her and then filled her vagina with sand. This is one of nearly 1,000 cases of sexual assault filed in 2009 in which the perpetrators were never punished.
Rape was rampant during the 1991-2002 civil war and has continued in peacetime. In 2007 the government passed legislation that made violent or sexual abuse of women – including within marriage – a criminal act, but law enforcement and social services organizations struggle to implement the law.
Statistics from the family support unit (FSU) of the police, recently released in the capital, Freetown, did not list a single conviction in any of the 927 cases of sexual abuse reported to police in 2009. Pressure exerted on women appeared to be the main cause for the lack of prosecutions.
In Janice's case, neighbours urged her to back out. "One of the main reasons I decided to drop the matter was that the principal witness, my landlord, came under pressure by the entire community to convince me to settle out of court," she told IRIN in Freetown.
She said her attackers, who lived in the neighbourhood, "have shown great remorse for what they did to me", and noted that they had spent 14 days in detention in a Freetown prison.
Janice's decision to abandon the case was "a big disappointment in our fight against sexual and gender-based violence," said Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, head of the Society for Democratic Initiatives, a Freetown-based human rights group, which provided her legal assistance.
Social workers said a fear of visibility and retaliation were among the reasons people hesitated to pursue rapists. "People living in the same community as the victim are sceptical about coming to police, or to go to court to present evidence, as they fear revenge by the perpetrators," Isha Bangura, director of FSU, told IRIN.
"Most times victims compromise [cases] by accepting money from perpetrators and withdraw charges; this is largely due to poverty," Bangura said, but the stigma attached to rape was also a potent factor. She said women's tendency to abandon charges against rapists was widespread and put all women in danger.
Bangura said she commonly saw apparently false rape allegations, which also hampered the fight against sexual violence. She suggested there should be a law punishing anyone who brought a case of sexual or gender-based violence then withdrew it.
*not her real name