Photograph — The Independent

Last Thursday, President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone declared a national emergency over rape and sexual violence following the outcry over the rape of a five-year-old girl by a 28-year-old man. The incident which happened last year left the child paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.

As a nation, we must address this scourge. With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” President Bio said in a keynote address at the State House. Speaking to Reuters, the child’s grandmother demanded justice, stating that the rapist, who never got punished for his atrocious act, should spend the rest of his life behind bars as her granddaughter may never walk again.

Until recently, the law for rape and other sexually motivated crimes in Sierra Leone carried a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment, but very few reported cases have been prosecuted despite the increasing number of reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the last three years. According to the BBC, over 8,500 cases were recorded last year, almost double the figure from the previous year, a third of which involved a minor, some as young as three months old.

Activists say the figures would be higher if all cases were reported, but owing to the culture of silence, indifference, and victim shaming, many cases are swept under the carpet. “Some of our families practise a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized,” Bio said. “We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”

Bio promised his government would work with civil societies to improve laws criminalizing rape and other forms of gender violence. “My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society and also any man who rapes will be jailed forever so that a single rape becomes the last rape,” he said. He also pledged that all victims of sexual violence would be treated for free at state hospitals, and ordered the creation of a special police division for rape and sexual violence.

In addition, the government is setting up a hotline to report rape cases. The country’s chief justice is also considering creating a special division with assigned judges to deal with cases of rape and sexual assault. In December, First lady, Fatima Bio partnered with other first ladies across West Africa to launch a campaign, called “Hands Off Our Girls,” to raise awareness on rape and gender-based violence against women across the region.

“We have come together as sisters to work in partnership, in unison, to support each other, to scream the loudest for our husbands to hear us and understand that women are crying in Africa. We don’t have the liberty and freedom that men have in our own countries,” she told the BBC.

Activists praised president Bio’s decision to treat rape and sexual assault as one of national emergency, saying that it shines a very bright light on the issue. Fatmata Sorie, president of an all-female lawyers group that provide free legal services to victims of sexual abuse say progress must continue. “We still need to think about how services for survivors are not accessible, especially for the poor,” she said. “We’ve made a big step today, but this is a very complex issue that will require complex and continuing solutions.”

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