Sierra Leone president declares rape a 'national emergency'

Sierra Leone declares emergency over rape and sexual assault

Sierra Leone declares emergency over rape and sexual assault

According to police statistics, more than 8,500 cases were recorded last year - a rise of almost 4,000 on the figure from the previous year.

In a keynote address on Thursday, President Julius Maada Bio said hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assault are reported each month in the West African nation against women, girls and babies as young as three months old.

"Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized", Bio told a crowd from the presidential office in Freetown.

The assault was one of many that have gone unpunished in Sierra Leone, where until now sexually-motivated crimes carried a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and few cases were successfully prosecuted.

Sexual violence has always been a taboo topic in Sierra Leone.

Mr Bio said attacks on minors - which account for a third of all cases - would be punished with a life sentence.

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.

Bio also ordered the creation of a special police division for rape and sexual violence against minors.

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"All government hospitals must provide free medical treatment and medical certificates to every rape and sexual abuse victim", he said.

Many victims contract sexual transmitted diseases after attacks, including in some cases HIV.

The five-year-old girl, whose identity has been kept secret for her own safety, has been paralysed from the waist down since a 28-year-old male relative raped her a year ago, crushing her spine.

The announcement comes amid calls by activists and Sierra Leone's First Lady Fatima Bio for stricter punishment for perpetrators of sexual violence.

Out of 30,000 women and girls survivors of sexual violence in Sierra Leone, 93 percent are below the age of 17, according to Rainbo Initiative, the only local organisation helping survivors with free medical and psychosocial services.

Some trace the roots of Sierra Leone's rape crisis to its civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002.

A dedicated public emergency telephone number to report rape and sexual violence would also be created, Bio said.

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