Wartime Forced Marriage and Sexual Slavery in Africa Cases from Uganda and Sierra Leone

Years after civil wars have ended in northern Uganda and Sierra Leone, women abducted by rebel groups who are victims of forced marriage and sexual slavery continue to experience exclusion. Their experiences reveal that reintegration is not linear but lifelong and potentially intergenerational.

Editor’s note: This essay is available in print in our latest issue on Modern Slavery in Africa. Buy the issue here.

In 1998, international law via the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) recognized sexual slavery as a war crime. In 2002, the Special Court for Sierra Leone pioneered the recognition of the practice. In March 2009, Trial Chamber I of the Court found three high-ranking members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guilty of crimes against humanity, namely rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage (under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’). The decision marked the first time an international criminal tribunal entered convictions of a crime of forced marriage. The Trial Chamber confirmed Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings that girls and women were subjected to sexual and gender-based violence during the war in Sierra Leone. These legal developments have had a direct impact in Uganda.

On 8 July 2005, the ICC prosecutor officially issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader and his top four allies/commanders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 6 December 2016, Trial Chamber IX of the ICC commenced its trial against Dominic Ongwen, one of the five LRA commanders indicted. Presently, the other three are dead, and only Kony is at large. Ongwen was accused of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 4 February 2021, Trial Chamber IX found Ongwen guilty of all 19 counts of sexual and gender-based violence charges, including sexual slavery, forced marriage, rape, enslavement and forced pregnancy.  The trial was the first in which the ICC convicted a rebel commander for forced pregnancy as a war crime and a crime against humanity. It was also the first time that the ICC convicted forced marriage (charged under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’), constituting a crime against humanity.

The debate in research is whether these wartime practices should be interpreted as constituting modern slavery or different phenomena. Slavery remains a legal concept, with the 1926 Slavery Convention defining it as ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.’

This essay is available online to paying subscribers only. To read the full essay, start a subscription from $1.99 / month (students) and $5.99 / month (everyone else) here