Editor’s note: This story contains language and details of sexual violence.
Outrage over rising rates of sexual violence and rape in Sierra Leone led President Julius Maada Bio to declare a “national emergency” on Thursday.
Last year, the shocking rape of a 5-year-old girl by an uncle nearly six times her age devastated the country, Reuters reported. The young girl is now paralyzed from the waist down — her life is forever changed, while her rapist has faced no consequences for his actions.
Unfortunately, this story is all too common in Sierra Leone, where the rate of sexual and domestic violence has steadily increased over the past few years, according to police data. Although rape has been punishable by up to 15 years in prison in the West African, few cases have been successfully prosecuted, Reuters reported.
Now — after months of public outcry and activists, including the First Lady of Sierra Leone, calling for stricter sexual violence laws — Bio has raised the penalty for the sexual abuse of minors and said his government will work to strengthen legislation and law enforcement, according to CNN.
More than 12,000 cases of sexual or domestic violence were reported in 2017, but the true number of cases is likely higher, as many cases are never reported out of shame and fear.
Nearly half of girls and women in Sierra Leone experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the United Nations. Approximately 90% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 in Sierra Leone have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) — a form of gender-based violence that involves the total or partial alteration or removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons.
The president highlighted the sexual abuse of minors as a particular problem saying that 70% of sexual assault survivors in the country are under the age of 15.
"We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge,” President Bio said, adding that “sexual penetration” of a minor will now be punishable by a lifetime of imprisonment.
Bio also highlighted the need to make treatment and support for survivors of sexual assault more accessible and affordable.
"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.