Sunday, April 15, 2007

Women, government launch campaign against sexual violence

FREETOWN, 4 April 2007 (PlusNews) - Thousands of women recently marched against sexual violence in the main streets of Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, as part of a new initiative to end all violence against women; girls as young as 10 years took part in the demonstration that blocked traffic in many parts of the city.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs, in conjunction with more than 30 women's rights groups, launched the campaign against the sexual violence that has often been linked to HIV/AIDS among women in this postwar country.
Sierra Leone's first network for women living with HIV/AIDS, 'The Voice of Women', aims to be up and running later this month. Network organisers envision it not only as an advocacy platform but as a safe haven from the stigma that HIV-positive people often suffer.
"In society we find ourselves stigmatised. People tend to outcast people, especially positive women," said one of the network's 12 founders, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
She contracted the virus from her husband in 2000, and has already lost one of her daughters to an AIDS-related illness. "Nobody wants to come around you, fearing that they could contract HIV/AIDS," she said.
Government initiatives with a special focus on rural areas will include information campaigns on radio, targeting both men and women in interactive lectures and seminars for women.
Rape was commonly used as a tool of war during more than a decade of conflict in Sierra Leone, where women and girls were often used as sex slaves.
Since the end of the war, rape has increased, especially of children, according to the Sierra Leone Police Family Support Unit (FSU), which is responsible for investigating abuses of women's and children's rights.
According to the FSU, 65 percent of rape cases reported to the police in 2006 involved teenage girls under the age of 18, while a report by the United States State Department in the same year found that rape was underreported, and indictments rare.
A reluctance to pursue justice for women, combined with limited economic opportunities, created a culture of impunity for perpetrating violence against women in Sierra Leone, the State Department said.
UNAIDS has estimated HIV prevalence in Sierra Leone at 1.5 percent, with the government indicating that approximately 50,000 people are infected.

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