The evidence is incontrovertible that Liberia (with its two civil wars, 1989-97 and 2000-03) and Sierra Leone (with its 1991-2001 war) have emerged from two of the most inhuman, ferocious and cruel conflicts in the post-Cold war era. The scale of destruction, rape, mayhem, arson and torture perpetrated during these wars was among the greatest in Africa's postcolonial history. Women, especially adolescents and young adults, were exposed to extreme sexual brutality at a time when a growing heterosexually-driven HIV pandemic was occurring in the West African sub-region. Both countries also experienced an economic and social collapse that resulted in human development indicators on employment, income, health, education, women's status and child well-being that are among the lowest in the world.
Protracted armed conflicts, as witnessed in Liberia and Sierra Leone and beyond, expose women and girls to unprecedented levels and forms of sexual violence. Moreover, the expectation that the transition from war to peace will lead to significantly reduced sexual violence against women (SVAW) is often disappointed. Instead, post-conflict transitions tend to produce a change in the predominant forms of sexual violence and the profile of its perpetrators.
The extended and interlinked conflicts in these neighbouring countries relate at a fundamental level to the persistent denial of citizenship rights to particular population sub-groups over several decades. Within such landscapes of severe social, economic and political marginalization and deprivation, women and girls were bound to suffer more than men and boys during and after the wars as a result of long-established and deeply entrenched patriarchal structures and ideologies in both countries. The persistence of SVAW during post-conflict transitions tends to increase the risk of HIV infection among younger women relative to the phase of armed conflict. A key causal factor is men's highly exploitative, transactional and cross-generational multiple sexual activities. Thus far, the dominant responses to this complex of issues in post-conflict West Africa have lacked a nuanced understanding of the underlying drivers of sexual violence and its intersections with women's higher risk of HIV infection.
The policy responses to the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building in West Africa have generally focused more on traditional security, physical infrastructure rebuilding and economic revitalization issues than on such highly gendered human security concerns as sexual violence and violations of reproductive rights. Left unaddressed, these persisting or worsening human security challenges, affecting at least half their populations, make sustainable peace and development in post-conflict Liberia and Sierra Leone nearly impossible.