Can Human Security Initiatives Help War Affected Women in Sierra Leone?

February 5, 2009

In the aftermath of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, NGOs have sponsored a number of human security-based initiatives targeting the needs of women and girls affected by the conflict, which have sadly proved to be inadequate.

Denov’s article, “Wartime Sexual Violence: Assessing a Human Security Response to War-Affected Girls in Sierra Leone” gives 3 examples of such initiatives: “Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR)” programmes, which typically involve “weapons for benefits” exchanges, have been criticized for extending gender insecurity by excluding dependants of combatants.  Special Courts and “Truth and Reconciliation” processes were deemed unhelpful (according to interviews with girls subject to sexual violence) because they appeared to lead to further social stigmatization.

We think that it is possible that incorporating “gender sensitive” or “positive discrimination” approaches towards the affected women might help improve results.  For example, one to one counseling (an initiative currently practised in Congo) with a female counselor or childcare services so women who became pregnant as a result of the experience can continue their education or careers  are the types of adjustments that may help with re-integration.

Yet even with these gender-sensitive adjustments,  the overall societal perception towards victims of sexual violence in Sierra Leone is not being addressed. Many women claim that as a result of their abuse they have become “unmarriageable” because they are no longer virgins. Under these circumstances, NGO action alone is insufficient. The State must be involved in educating society that these women’s experiences were not their fault and that citizens should be accepting and sensitive to their situation.

This case leaves us wondering if a human security approach is sufficient to address the real needs of these women.   Can human security’s people-based, gender sensitive initiatives only offer a band-aid instead of a real cure?

By Rosanne and Maggie


Myriam S. Denov, “Wartime Sexual Violence: Assessing a Human Security Response to War-Affected Girls in Sierra Leone,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 37, No. 3, 2006

Sexual and Gender Based Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo“, World Health Organization, 2005


9 Responses to “Can Human Security Initiatives Help War Affected Women in Sierra Leone?”

  1. Ho Wing Nam Marianna Says:

    I believe the human security approach is insufficient. The inadequacy of human security lies in its overemphasis on individuals, and that it overestimates the freedom of individuals construct their own social arrangements. It fails to take into account the structural/social influences that may shape an individual’s action.

    The human security based initiatives for the war-affected girls are no doubt of good intention, however they failed to take into consideration the structural/social impact on the girls. As pointed out by Denov, the human security approach failed to take into account structural influences such as gender inequality, existing social norms(e.g. being unmarriageable or stigmatized since they were once raped or worked for the rebels). These structural influences affect how the girls perceived the initiatives and hence how much they can benefit from them. Therefore, humanitarian initiatives at individual level are insufficient. More has to be done on the structural level—advocacy for equal rights, democratic reforms—and yes, I agree with Rosanne and Maggie that education can be a solution.

    Besides, the definition of “individual” in human security approach seems to be too broad. The DDR have regarded individuals as either male or gender neutral and hence overlooked the realities of females, and failed to address the girls’ needs. That brings me to ponder—other than gender characteristics, are particular characteristics(e.g.ethnicity, religion) also overlooked in the human security approach? If yes, human security may seem too ideal to think it can address to individuals’ security needs in such sense; but if no, human security seems to have neglected a significant part of an “individual”… What then does an “individual” in human security mean?

  2. limanannie Says:

    The hybrid trial, the Special Court for Sierra Leone mentioned in Denov’s article sounds effective in recognizing that the girls are victims. Laws are always a good tool to establish norms in a society, especially after this long civil war when people are ready to accept new laws. Because it involves the local government, the people there may feel that even the local government is recognizing the issue. It makes the law against the rapers, and thus the norms, domestic rather than imposed by some international organizations distant from the people there.
    A girl in the article mentioned that she did not trust the court as it involved the local government. She was afraid that the local government would arrest her for her affiliation with RUF. This is a weakness of a hybrid court, but I think gradually the local government can build trust by action. (A side point: it may even help building law and order in the post-war society.) The UN should ensure the public that it is monitoring the running of the court. It can also provide one-to-one protection to the girls for a certain period during and after the trials.

    Annie Li

  3. magso Says:


    Thank you for your comments!

    Gender, ethnicity and religion in our opinion can be catered for in the human security approach, and they are not overlooked, especially the board characteristics you have mentioned, for example gender and ethnicity. We think that our suggestions like female counseling can adequately cater for the characteristic of “gender”. Furthermore, counselors can refer the women to special services according to their individual needs such as childcare or medical assistance.

    However, we think it is hard for human security actors, especially very large scale ones (e.g. the State) to provide a tailor made solution that will satisfy each and every single individual. It must be kept in mind that it is simply not possible to make everyone 100% satisfied!

    To say that as a result of the overlooking of some particular characteristics the human security approach is too ideal may be asking too much?

    Maggie and Rosanne

  4. magso Says:


    Thank you for your comments too!

    Don’t you think that the UN’s intervention into the Special Court for Sierra Leone would be interfering with state sovereignty? This can only be possible if the state agrees and invites outside supervision.

    Does going to the Courts really help these girls by recognizing them as victims, or does it worsen their situation? We think that taking into account the particular culture of Sierra Leone about girls being perceived as “unmarriageable” after their abuse, giving the opportunity to stand in Court to testify and subsequently publically known as a “rape victim” is anything but helpful.

    Rather, should we not look forward and help these girls by integrating them into society and preventing stigmatization? We think that the main purpose of the Courts is to ensure that those responsible are held accountable. However initiatives such as counseling are more effective in helping these girls themselves.

    Maggie and Rosanne

  5. limanannie Says:

    Dear Maggie and Rosanne,
    Thank you very much for your reply.
    Initiatives such as counseling are surely important to help the girls heal. However, as you mentioned, the most significant problem is the stigmatization in society.
    At the beginning the girls may be more publicly classified as rape victims, but this process is inevitable. The girls will only become marriageable if their potential boyfriends or spouses do not face stigmatization from society at large, and this can only be achieved by recognizing the harm done to the girls publicly. Law has its own norm-building effect. Private counseling cannot achieve this; education without these public acts is not convincing and can only achieve this in a really long time.
    Besides, the open trials show that the girls themselves are determined to get compensated for the harm done too. Recently an artist of TVB is alleged to have indecently assaulted female artists there. Not a single alleged victim reported that. People just further stigmatize the victims to be down-to-earth and regard their career more important than their ‘sexual integrity’. No one treat them as real victims as they seem to have given up the chance to be protected themselves. I think this stands despite the different culture in Sierra Leone.
    As to the state sovereignty point, I agree with you as this was not an inter-state war situation. This hybrid court may indeed be a suggestion subject to the adoption of the state.
    Annie Li

  6. rosanneleung Says:

    Dear Annie,

    Thank you again for your stimulation.

    We agree that law can help to build social norms and judgments against the wrong-doers have deterrent effect. Nonetheless, we are of the view that punishing the bad people is one thing, and accepting the rape victims as wives or girlfriends is quite another. Moreover, even if there are many trials and there may be some change in the long run, those war-affected victims in Sierra Leone may not necessarily be benefited. At least before any change in people’s attitude can be seen, those victims would have gone through a great deal of pressure and sufferrings already. Trial witnesses have to face people and recall painful memories, as opposed to education which is anonymous and more forward-looking.

    Maggie and Rosanne

  7. lmcinhk Says:

    Dear Maggie, Rosanne, Annie & Marianna —

    I enjoyed reading your discussion. It has been estimated that 1/3 of all women in Sierra Leone were victims of sexual violence during the war ( and that violence against women continues to be a major problem there. Couple this reality with extreme poverty, inequality and corruption, and you begin to understand the serious challenges facing Sierra Leone’s people.

    There is no one policy solution, political actor, or political and or legal model (including human security) that can be magically employed to effectively heal and reintegrate these women. As you all and Prof Denov have mentioned, Sierra Leone will need to simultaneously address the problem from multiple levels — social (ex., discrimination), legal (ex. new laws), economic (ex. reparation), and personal (ex., counseling) — to affect a change.

    What human security can provide is a strategic lens of sorts which centers our attention on 1) the security needs of individuals as the key building bloc to a secure state; 2) broadening the scope of security to include basic livelihood issues that are at root of individual insecurity; and 3) the importance of a policy delivery by a diverse group of actors (state and non-state) as key to effective policy implementation. This lens in and of itself will not solve the problem, but it can help us to focus on the crucial building blocs necessary to enhance security for Sierra Leone’s most vulnerable which will in turn enhance security for all. — LMC

  8. Kong Cheuk Yan Eric Says:

    Sometimes it’s really difficult for NGOs to implement social programme in the area of having gender insecurity. It is because we don’t really understand the social norms and social structure in a specific country. Simply analyzing the problem using our own cultural mindset may come up with ineffective solutions. In my opinion, the causes of the women insecurity are not as simple as we think. Though civil wars are one of the reasons, the ultimate cause of the insecurity maybe cultural factors. In country like Sierra Leone there is a wide gap between rights of males and females. Males are often the ones who become leaders and decision makers. The discrimination from the male leaders sometimes initiates and encourages the insecure treatment to women.
    The solutions that you two proposed (positive discrimination and taking care of the women) are constructive but only short term solution. The most important and effective way is to let the citizens, especially those male decision makers understand that it is essential to protect basic rights of women. The women security can only be protected when common awareness and norm are built up in the society. By achieving this goal, education to students and social leaders are needed. As a result, I think those NGOs should focus on developing a effective and wide-spread educational campaign to introduce new norm into the community.

  9. Patty Montanio Says:

    Hello Rosanne and Maggie, it’s so sad the situation described on your post, about your final question in my opinion, there is no way to erase the particular situations of women who were affected, I think it could be more efficient or better if government looks to avoid those situations, if NGO’s try to give support to women, the first action is to look for what they want, and then everyone could work together to get a peaceful environment, trying that women can be safe in their region.

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