Rape and sexual assault have been declared a national emergency in Sierra Leone, as reported cases of gender-based violence continued to rise in the West African country.
The decree was made by President Julius Maada Bio on Thursday, several weeks after the First Lady led a demonstration through the streets of Freetown to raise awareness on the issue.
“Each month, hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults are being reported in this country. These despicable crimes of sexual violence are being committed against our women, children and even babies. Some of the fatalities are as young as 3 months old. Seventy percent of survivors of this traumatic experience are under the age (of) 15,” the President said.
He declared that those convicted of sexual offences against minors would face life in prison after months of campaigning by activists.
“With this declaration, I have also directed the following: that all government hospitals must provide free medical treatment and certificate to every victim of rape and sexual abuse,” he added.
According to police statistics, reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled in 2018 to over 8,500, a third of which involved a minor.
Gender-based violence is a traditionally seen as a taboo topic in Sierra Leone. Only 12 years ago parliament passed its first gender equality laws in 46 years of independence, following lobbying by women’s rights groups.
Implementation of these policies has been slow and law enforcement agencies have been hampered by inadequate resources, promoting a culture of impunity.
The country’s First Lady has since launched her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign to increase awareness of violence against girls across West Africa.
“There was a morning, one day, I think he was going to work and then on the radio he heard about a 3-month-old kid that was penetrated and the child passed away and that was a very, very hectic day for him, he was basically upset the whole day. He came home, he was really, really angry and I had to, like, force him to tell me what’s going on and then he explained that a 3-month-old child was actually violated and the child died. I said well, a three-month old whoever did that did not do it just to have sex. That’s murder. You killed somebody’s baby,” the First Lady told Reuters.
The President and his wife were speaking at the State House in Freetown.