Rape and sexual assault of young women have been a worrying trend in Sierra Leone in recent years.
A five-year-old girl who has been left paralysed after being brutally raped by her uncle has finally called people and authorities to action.
Starting off with a campaign against these sexual abuses, the president of the country, Julius Maada Bio, has finally been pushed to declare the prevalence of rape and sexual violence a national emergency.
The young victim’s case is among many others that have been left unpunished in Sierra Leone. Police statistics cited by VOA state that reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year to over 8,500, a third of which involved a minor.
The figures could even be more, as most cases are never reported, according to activists. Hitherto, sexually-motivated crimes carried a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and few cases were successfully prosecuted, according to VOA.
Following the president’s declaration, people convicted of sexual offences against minors would now face life in prison.
“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 at the State House on Thursday.
“Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized,” Bio added.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
Twelve years ago, following intense campaigns by activists and other lobbyist groups, the Senegalese parliament passed its first gender equality laws in 46 years of independence.
Authorities and security agencies have, however, been slow in implementing these policies and this has been blamed on lack of funding and other resources.
In December, the first lady, Fatima Bio launched her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign to increase awareness of violence against girls across West Africa.
She launched the campaign under the theme: “Ending Child Marriage and Reducing Teenage Pregnancy to Empower Women”, with support from other African ladies.
Out of 30,000 women and girl survivors of sexual violence in Sierra Leone, 93 per cent are below the age of 17, said Rainbo Initiative, a local organisation helping survivors with free medical and psychosocial services.
Many of the victims end up contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, while others get pregnant.
The president’s declaration has, therefore, been hailed by many as a major step for the West African country, even though the government has also been urged to focus on providing more support services for victims, especially the poor.