Sophie in Sierra Leone: the Countess tackles sexual violence and girls’ education

Today, The Countess of Wessex concluded a short visit to Sierra Leone, during which she focused on addressing sexual and gender-based violence, supporting survivors, and championing women’s role in peace building.

There has been a good dose of information about some parts of this visit, but not others, so please do forgive the brevity of some engagements.

Sophie began with a trip to the Sierra Leone Peace Museum in Freetown on Wednesday. Here, she was greeted by Binta Mansaray, Registrar of the Residual Special Court.

The museum houses archive material from the country’s civil war, as well as artefacts like clothing worn by the CDF, a civil militia.

The Countess of Wessex visited Sierra Leone’s Freetown museum (UKinSierraLeone)

It has been almost 20 years since the end of the conflict (1991-2002), the royal heard how Sierra Leone has successfully transitioned to a sustained peace following the conflict.

The Countess appeared visibly moved as she was told about the items and information held within the museum, as well as when looking at the artefacts herself. The violence of the civil war was brutal and affected an estimated 275,000 women and girls.

The royal visitor learnt about the role of the Special Court and Truth and Reconciliation Commission in bringing justice to survivors of the conflict, including survivors of sexual violence.

Sophie speaks to locals about efforts to secure justice for survivors of sexual violence during the civil war, including the role of the Special Court & the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (UKinSierraLeone)

At one point, Sophie was shown the testimonies of those involved in the civil war, from both perpetrators and victims of violence, which forms part of the commission.

The Queen’s daughter-in-law was able to meet privately with two survivors to hear their experiences and learnt how it has continued to affect their lives.

She signed the guestbook in the museum, before leaving.

In recent months, the Countess of Wessex has been attending other events focusing on preventing sexual violence in war zones, including a visit to Nairobi, speaking at the UN in New York, and discussions on home soil.

Next was the opportunity to join roundtable discussions with civil society members on current issues, and the continued violence faced by women and girls in Sierra Leone. She had the chance to meet with women from across government, the armed forces, civil society and communities to celebrate the role they are playing at home and abroad in advocating for peace in other regions.

Talk turned to how the nations it trying tackle these issues – particularly reducing stigma – which is helping more women to report incidents of rape.

At another event, after a change of outfit, Sophie was given a tour of the government chambers of Parliament in Freetown, where she was serenaded and presented with an embroidered sash from members of a women’s parliamentary group.

The first day ended with a reception at the UK Ambassador’s residence.

Sophie also made time to stop at Russell Technical Secondary School on Thursday. Pupils there being given are life-skills lessons via solar radios. The radios are pre-loaded with lessons on topics including reproduction, family planning and sexual and physical violence, to help overcome a knowledge and staff-shortage.

Access to education is crucial for girls to allow them to increase their opportunities, partly by protecting them against marrying young and teen pregnancy. Gender equality forms part of the curriculum.

Sophie spent time at Russell Technical School (Royal Family)

The Countess of Wessex presents another solar radio to help with lessons (Royal Family)

The school motto is “10 metres of space. Our books are better than men and babies!”.

Next came a visit to Tombo Health Clinic. The clinic is supported by the British Department for International Development, helping to improve access to family planning services and reproductive health education in Sierra Leone. More than 20% of girls aged 15-19 are pregnant or have had a child in the country.

This morning gave the Royal enough time for a couple of engagements. The Countess of Wessex spent time at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre (AWC), to find out more about how AWC is doing to help child rape victims from across the country.

HRH visited a ward in the health clinic and met recently treated children. The centre is increasingly supporting survivors of sexual and gender based violence and the royal visitor had the opportunity to talk privately with some adult survivors.

The Countess of Wessex at Aberdeen Clinic is Sierra Leoen. (Alexandra Rigby)

The centre came into the spotlight last year, when a 5-year-old rape victim was being treated at the AWC. Since then, the government has changed the law to introduce stricter sentencing for convicted rapists but ‘a cultural shift still needs to take place to eradicate the crime’, says the FFF (Freedom from Fistula).

AWC is a hospital providing a broad variety of free services to the women and children of Sierra Leone. This includes maternity care, child healthcare, adolescent education and empowerment and family planning services, as well as support for child rape victims. AWC’s mission is “to provide high quality, holistic care and treatment free of charge to our patients and clients”.

Sophie spent time meeting patients and staff to discuss the problem. The FFF seeks to expand its service to child rape victims and set up a dedicated One Stop Shop (OSS) Rape Crisis Centre at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre, bringing all required parties – medical, police, counselling, social work and legal services – into one building; as well as a dedicated child-friendly ward for victims of SGBV; a secure and anonymous data collection system to inform policy makers.

Sophie speaks to survivors of rape at the Aberdeen Women’s Centre (Royal Family)

The organisation needs £100,000 to establish the One Stop Shop, and another £200,000 annually to cover the running costs.

Speaking after the royal visit, Programmes Manager Alexandra Rigby said: “Her Royal Highness was very interested to understand the reality of rape in Sierra Leone and learn about our plans to help more child victims of SGBV.

“It is truly beyond comprehension what happens to these children and it is difficult for all of us to witness – but we are passionate about helping these little girls and doing whatever we can to help them heal from their injuries and find safety.

“The One Stop Shop is desperately needed in the country so I hope people will support us.”

Finally, ending the tour, the Countess paid a visit to Freetown’s King Tom Commonwealth Cemetery to lay a wreath in recognition of those who served in the First and Second World Wars.

Her note simply read ‘We will remember them.’

Sophie visited the grave of Sister Jane Margaret Houston, from the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, of which Sophie is Royal Colonel, whilst there.

Sophie lays a wreath in Sierra Leone (Royal Family)

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