President of Sierra Leone Declares a National Emergency Over Rape
Last year in Sierra Leone, the statistics show that reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence almost doubled in the country. According to the police records, last year there were over 8,500 reported cases, a third of which involved minors. However, the actual figures are probably much higher, according to activists like the First Lady Fatima Bio, due to the fact that most cases don’t get reported.
The President of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, decided to declare sexual violence a national emergency last Thursday after a string of high profile cases. One of which included the rape of a 5 year-old girl last year. Her 28 year-old uncle was accused of the attack which left her paralyzed from the waist down due to her spine being crushed during the rape. The uncle was unpunished for the crime which sparked outrage throughout the country.
According to the United Nations data, almost half of the women in Sierra Leone will face sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, while 90 percent of women between 15 and 49 have been victims of genital mutilation. However, this violence against women in Sierra Leone is not new. During the civil war from 1991-2002, rape and sexual assault was common and used as a weapon of war.
At a recent speech the President gave in Freetown, he stated that 70% of survivors, in this West African nation of 7.5 million, are under the age of 15. Most perpetrators don’t face punishment, and when they do the sentence is minimal. For example, last year, a 56 year-old man was only sentenced to one year in prison for the rape of a 6 year-old girl.
In a bold move, the President declared that anyone who sexually assaults a minor will face life in prison, a crime which currently has a maximum sentence of 15 years. Bio also stated, “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.”
The President’s wife, First Lady Fatima Bio, has been a tireless campaigner in the fight to end gender-based violence. In December, she led a demonstration to raise awareness of the issue, and then launched a campaign called “Hands Off Our Girls” that also focuses on violence against girls. It has been activists like the First Lady and civil society groups that have brought the severity of these crimes to national and international attention.