Chairperson, esteemed visitors to our beloved Sierra Leone, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, let me express my delight to be a part of this epoch-making conference.

It is my particular pleasure to welcome our overseas participants to our country during this year of our 50th independence anniversary.  I trust you are enjoying the traditional hospitality of Sierra Leoneans.

Let me commend you, the organizers for collaborating with Women’s Forum Sierra Leone in this venture.  I am, myself, a member of the Women’s Forum (Sierra Leone) and was very active, especially during the Bintumani I and II conferences in 1996 at which the women pressed for, and obtained, clearance for Sierra Leone’s return to a democratically elected civilian rule.

 Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts at this ceremony on Forced Marriage, Gender and Conflict. Allow me to state at the outset that the problem of early, forced marriages of children is considered to be a violation of basic human rights and this issue is not unique to Sierra Leone. Early, forced marriage unions violate the basic human rights of these girls by putting them into a life of isolation, service, lack of education, health problems and abuse. This is a violation of the rights of women because a forced marriage is a marriage that is performed under duress and without the full and informed consent or free will of both parties. Being under duress includes feeling both physical and emotional pressure. It must be emphasized that victims fall prey to forced marriage through various means such as deception, abduction, coercion, fear, and inducements.

I am told that a lot of advance work has been done on victims’ rights leading to this conference.  I refer to the analysis of the Special Court decision on Forced Marriage by the Coalition for Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations, and the publication of the Nairobi Declaration on Women’s and Girls’ Right to A Remedy and Reparation and many other interventions.  Let me hasten to congratulate you for your indefatigable efforts to turn the searchlight on such a sensitive and rights-laden issue.

This conference is indeed timely and is of great significance for women the world over, especially victims of sexual violence during conflict.  For us in Sierra Leone, we still recall the eleven year conflict during which our mothers, sisters, and children suffered from extreme brutality through multiple and gang rapes, amputations, sexual slavery and forced marriage.  According to reports by the Human Rights Watch (2003) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2004) up to 250,000 women and girls in Sierra Leone were victims of gender based violence.  As a result, these victims suffered from physical trauma which caused reproductive health problems for some like unwanted pregnancies, vesico-vaginal and vesico-rectal fistulas and infection with sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.  Also after the war, many women faced stigma, ostracization and shame.

Most of them were also rejected by their husbands and communities for being raped or having been ‘bush wives’.  Thus they suffered from double victimization.  Unfortunately this continues to affect many women and girls in Sierra Leone.  It is significant to note that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attributed the high level of sexual violence during the war to the influence of cultural beliefs and traditions which promote discrimination against women.

Chairperson, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, against this background, various initiatives are being undertaken at country level to address the situation of victims of sexual violence in particular, and of discrimination against women in general.

In my capacity as First Lady and within the context of my own professional background as a nurse, I have embarked on the promotion of women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health and rights through safe motherhood, maternal and child health.  This, coupled with the National Free Health Care Policy for pregnant women, lactating mothers and Under Five children is bound to make an impact on the lives of women and children in Sierra Leone.

Furthermore, I am aware that a Directorate of Reparations and a Victims Trust Fund have been established to deal with victims issues as mandated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Recently, about three hundred victims of sexual violence were supported by UN to undergo skills training in various areas.  At the broader level, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs has developed a National Gender Strategic Plan which among other things seeks to address issues of gender based violence. On March 27th 2010, the President of the nation made a public apology to the women of Sierra Leone for the injustices they suffered during the civil war. This apology was necessary for the healing process of the victims.

 A National Action Plan for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 has been developed.  We also have the three gender laws in operation – the Domestic Violence, Devolution of Estates and Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce passed in 2007.  These have made a substantial improvement in legal protection for women and girls.  I wish also to acknowledge the efforts made by International NGOs and Local NGOs to address various issues on gender based violence.

Chairperson, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, you will agree with me that even after the war, gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, is still with us.  There are now many child victims whose perpetrators go scot-free for want of stiffer laws to prosecute rape. Many adult women who are raped fail to make reports out of fear of stigma and shame.  This prevents them from getting appropriate medical attention and justice for the harm done to them.

However the good thing is that efforts are being made to address these challenges.  For example the gender laws (registration of customary marriage and divorce) stipulate that the marriageable age is 18 years with the full consent of both parties, especially the girl.  This means that the former practice of marrying off underage girls without their consent is going to be curtailed.  With adequate sensitization and education, the practice will soon become a thing of the past.

It is my fervent hope that the outcomes of this research project will not only inform legal and academic circles but also contribute to a deepening understanding about the whole issue of women and conflict; how their experiences influence in a negative way the future of women in post-conflict situations; and how these influences can be mitigated.  This is of extreme importance if women’s security is to be guaranteed.

Furthermore, we should also explore issues connected with catering for the socio-economic and psychological needs of the victims on a sustained basis.  This holistic approach will contribute to improved access to justice for them.  The victims should also be empowered to better understand the true nature of the advocacy being mounted on their behalf.  This will motivate them to add their voice to the call for putting an end to impunity.  They will also gain the confidence and ability to influence decisions which will affect their own future.  The above underscores the need to empower vulnerable groups so that they can demand their rights.

Chairperson, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as I close, let me underscore the point that the victims of sexual violence in the courts and in society need justice.  Through this means, the full impact of the landmark decision by the Special Court of Sierra Leone can be felt in our local context.  I look forward to the outcomes of this research project on forced marriage and hope that they will be used for change, knowledge building, information sharing, policy formulation and monitoring. With such joint efforts, we can achieve great results.

Chairperson, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, violence against women should be tackled relentlessly; we should engage men at all levels in order to combat stigma, impunity and discriminatory attitudes towards women.

We need to adopt a multi-faceted approach to these issues so we can achieve success.

At this point, I have great pleasure to declare this conference officially open.  I wish you fruitful deliberations.