Last year, a 28-year-old man in Sierra Leone was accused of raping a 5-year-old relative — paralyzing her from the waist down.
He never faced punishment for the horrific incident, which drew outrage across the West African nation of 7.5 million and brought attention to the country’s high rate of sexual violence. "She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened,” the girl’s grandmother told Reuters. "The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
But on Thursday, President Julius Maada Bio responded to the outcry over that rape and other violent acts against young girls by declaring a national emergency. In a speech in Freetown, he said that hundreds of incidents of sexual violence are reported each month — and that about 70 percent of victims are younger than 15. Many perpetrators never face justice; the BBC reported that a 56-year-old man who raped a 6-year-old girl was sentenced last year to a single year in prison.
“Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference toward sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized,” Bio said.
His announcement included a pledge that all victims of sexual violence would be treated at state hospitals free, and that those guilty of sexually assaulting minors could face life in prison. Until now, the maximum sentence has been 15 years.
CNN reported that more than 12,000 cases of sexual and domestic violence were reported in Sierra Leone in 2017, and first lady Fatima Bio has warned that the prevalence of sexual violence is in fact much higher, as many cases go unreported.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge,” the president said Thursday. “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.”
According to the first lady’s website, Sierra Leone will set up a rape and sexual assault division within its police force, and the country’s chief justice is considering “creating a special division with assigned judges to deal with cases of rape and sexual violence.” The government is also setting up a new hotline to report cases of sexual violence.
Late last year, Fatima Bio launched a campaign called “Hands Off Our Girls,” partnering with other first ladies from the region in an effort to draw attention to violence against women and girls, including cases of child marriage and rape.
“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,” she told BBC at the time. “We don’t have the liberty and freedom that men have in our own countries."
“I will not shut up until we stop this,” she said.