After persistent protests and campaigns by activists and civil society groups in Sierra Leone to attract government's attention to the increasing number of rape cases in the country, it appears the odds have fallen in their favor as the number one citizen of the country, President Julius Maada Bio has weighed into the matter and declared the prevalence of rape and sexual violence a national emergency.
The protests were heightened after the case of a five-year-old girl, who has been paralyzed from the waist down after she was raped by a 28-year-old male relative a year ago made the news. Her spine was crushed as a result of the rape incident, the family claim that her identity was kept secret for her own safety.
The news sparked protests after the grandmother of the young girl, who is now in a wheelchair, approached the press and activists to help seek justice for the young girl.
Speaking to Reuters, the visibly depressed grandmother said:
“She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened.
“The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
Cases like this often go unpunished in many African countries, and the majority of cases come from countries like Sierra Leone and South Africa, which activists claim are the rape capitals of the world.
Although rape and other sexually-motivated crimes carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, only a few cases make it to the courts and the culprits hardly face prosecution for their crimes.
Activists have been campaigning for months, and this prompted the president to declare a national emergency yesterday, saying those convicted of rape and sexual offenses against minors would face life in prison.
Speaking to a huge crowd of protesters at the State House in Freetown, President Julius Maada Bio said:
“Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
According to police statistics, reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year to over 8,500, a third of which involved a minor. Activists, including First Lady Fatima Bio, say the actual figures are much higher as most cases are never reported.
Gender-based violence is a traditionally seen as a taboo topic in Sierra Leone. Only 12 years ago did the parliament pass its first gender equality laws in 46 years of independence, following lobbying efforts by women’s rights groups.
Activists and civil society groups have praised the president’s declaration of a national emergency and claim that it is a step in the right direction.
However, Fatmata Sorie, who is a notable activist and is president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS) – an all-female group of barristers who provide pro bono legal services to vulnerable women and girls, say progress can only be achieved if the president match words with action.
“We still need to think about how services for survivors are not accessible, especially for the poor.
“We’ve made a big step today, but this is a very complex issue that will require complex and continuing solutions,” she said.
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Header Image Credit: UNICEF