Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared rape and sexual violence a national emergency on Thursday, calling for an end to the culture of “indifference” and impunity surrounding it.
His announcement follows a national outcry over the prevalence of sexual violence in the West African nation, where recorded cases of sexual and gender-based violence doubled last year, reaching 8 505 in a population of 7.8-million, according to police statistics.
Activists say many more cases go unreported.
“Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatised,” Bio told a crowd from the presidential office in Freetown. “We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
Sexual violence has long been a taboo topic in Sierra Leone. Though rape is a criminal offence, few cases are successfully prosecuted and sentences had ranged from five to a maximum of 15 years in prison.
But on Thursday, Bio upped the maximum sentence to life in prison for the rape of a minor.
“With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” he said. One-third of all reported cases of rape in 2018 involved a minor, police statistics show.
Bio also announced the formation of a new police division dedicated to investigating sexual violence, a special magistrate court that would handle fast track cases and a public hotline specifically for reporting sexual violence.
He further called upon all government hospitals to provide free medical treatment and certificates to all victims of sexual violence.
Many victims contract sexual diseases, including HIV, from being raped and hundreds also become pregnant.
National outcry over rape
Bio’s declaration followed a national campaign aimed at raising awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence and calling for tougher enforcement and more support for survivors.
First lady Fatima Bio has been among the activists. In December she launched the “Hands Off Our Girls” initiative at a demonstration in Freetown.
Public mobilisation for tougher rape laws was spurred by the rape of a 5-year-old girl by a 28-year-old male relative. The attack damaged the girl’s spine, leaving her paralysed for life.
According to the Rainbo Initiative, a local organisation providing free medical services and counselling to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, 76% of rape victims in 2018 were below the age of 15.
Some trace the roots of Sierra Leone’s rape crisis to its civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002. During that time, thousands of women and girls experienced widespread and systematic rape and sexual violence, a 2003 Human Rights Watch report found. — Deutsche Welle