In the face of public alarm over the growing number of rape and sexual assault cases in Sierra Leone, the country’s president has declared the issue a national emergency.
President Julius Maada Bio made the announcement last week in the capital of Freetown, the BBC reports, focusing his attention on sexual violence against minors, which he declared would be punishable by life in prison. Some 8,500 incidences of sexual violence were recorded in Sierra Leone last year, up by 4,000 from the previous year. Bio said one-third of those cases involved attacks on minors. The actual number of incidences is likely to be higher, according to activists; sexual violence, considered a taboo subject in the country, often goes unreported.
A number of tragic and high-profile cases have brought this issue to the fore in Sierra Leone, including the rape of a five-year-old girl who was left partially paralyzed by the attack. The perpetrator is allegedly the child’s 28-year-old uncle, Al Jazeera reports.
Instability in Sierra Leone—wrought by a protracted civil war, which ended in 2002, and by the more recent Ebola crisis—has created an environment where sexual violence against women has been carried out with impunity, as the New York Times notes. Progress in the realm of women’s rights has come slowly; the country passed its first gender equality laws in 2007, and sex with minors was only criminalized in 2012.
Activists and political figures have been working to raise awareness about the sexual abuse of children. In December of last year, First Lady Fatima Bio, launched the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign, that focuses on child marriage and gender-based violence.
Now that a state of emergency has been declared, President Bio promised that a police force would be formed to investigate sexual violence reports, and that a special magistrate’s court would hear such cases quickly. He also announced that hospitals have been directed to provide sexual violence survivors with free medical care. Additionally, Bio highlighted the need to shatter the stigma that surrounds sexual assault.
“Some of our families practise a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized,” Bio said, according to Al Jazeera. “We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
Read more at the BBC.