Sierra Leone president declares emergency over rape and sexual violence

Sierra Leone president declares rape a 'national emergency'

Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency over sexual and gender-based violence after recorded cases of rape and assault doubled over the past year.

Activists say many more cases go unreported.

Recorded cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year, reaching 8,505 in a population of 7.5 million, up from 4,750 a year earlier, according to police statistics.

Following months of campaigning by activists, the president declared a national emergency and said those convicted of sexual offences against minors would face life in prison.

"We want the numbers to come down, [and] we want a situation where the data is nationwide data, chiefdom-based data", she said.

The current law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years, and very few cases have been prosecuted.

A third of those involved a minor.

Reported cases of sexual-based and domestic violence have been on the rise in Sierra Leone in the last three years, with 12,029 cases reported in 2017, 11,362 in 2016, and 10,544 in 2015, according to police figures.

"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", he said.

Many victims contract sexual diseases, including HIV, from being raped and hundreds also become pregnant.

The decree was made by President Julius Maada Bio on Thursday, several weeks after the First Lady led a demonstration through the streets of Freetown to raise awareness on the issue.

Bio's declaration followed a national campaign aimed at raising awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence and calling for tougher enforcement and more support for survivors.

Anger has been mounting over sexual violence against women following a series of high-profile cases, including that of a five-year-old girl left partially paralysed after an alleged assault by her uncle. Mrs Bio has been championing the latest wave of campaign against sexual violence through her "Hands Off Our Girls" campaign. The attack crippled the girl's spine, leaving her paralyzed for life. "Seventy percent of survivors of this traumatic experience are under the age (of) 15", the President said.

Some trace the roots of Sierra Leone's rape crisis to its civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002. These despicable crimes of sexual violence are being committed against our women, children and even babies.

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