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Letter From Sierra Leone
January 23/30, 2002

Prevalence of War-Related Sexual Violence and Other Human Rights Abuses Among Internally Displaced Persons in Sierra Leone

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Physicians for Human Rights, Boston, Mass (Drs Amowitz and Iacopino and Mss Reis and Hare Lyons); Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston (Dr Amowitz); United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, Freetown, Sierra Leone (Mss Vann, Mansaray, and Taylor); and Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, New York, NY (Dr Akinsulure-Smith).


Section Editor: Annette Flanagin, RN, MA, Managing Senior Editor.

JAMA. 2002;287(4):513-521. doi:10.1001/jama.287.4.513

Context Sierra Leone's decade-long conflict has cost tens of thousands of lives and all parties to the conflict have committed abuses.

Objective To assess the prevalence and impact of war-related sexual violence and other human rights abuses among internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Sierra Leone.

Design and Setting A cross-sectional, randomized survey, using structured interviews and questionnaires, of internally displaced Sierra Leone women who were living in 3 IDP camps and 1 town, which were conducted over a 4-week period in 2001.

Participants A total of 991 women provided information on 9166 household members. The mean (SE) age of the respondents was 34 (0.48) years (range, 14-80 years). The majority of the women sampled were poorly educated (mean [SE], 1.9 [0.11] years of formal education); 814 were Muslim (82%), and 622 were married (63%).

Main Outcome Measures Accounts of war-related sexual assault and other human rights abuses.

Results Overall, 13% (1157) of household members reported incidents of war-related human rights abuses in the last 10 years, including abductions, beatings, killings, sexual assaults and other abuses. Ninety-four (9%) of 991 respondents and 396 (8%) of 5001 female household members reported war-related sexual assaults. The lifetime prevalence of non–war-related sexual assault committed by family members, friends, or civilians among these respondents was also 9%, which increased to 17% with the addition of war-related sexual assaults (excluding 1% of participants who reported both war-related and non–war-related sexual assault). Eighty-seven percent of women believed that there should be legal protection for women's human rights. More than 60% of respondents believed a man has a right to beat his wife if she disobeys, and that it is a wife's duty/obligation to have sex with her husband even if she does not want to.

Conclusions Sexual violence committed by combatants in Sierra Leone was widespread and was perpetrated in the context of a high level of human rights abuses against the civilian population.

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