Sierra Leonean President Declares National Emergency Over Rape and Sexual Assault

President Julius Maada Bio delcared a national emergency on February 7. ( Global News )

President Julius Maada Bio delcared a national emergency on February 7. (Global News)

Amid heightened concerns over the doubling of reported cases of sexual violence, President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone declared a “national emergency” over rape and sexual assault from the State House on February 7. In doing so, Bio was able to bypass Parliament. "With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” he stated, a shift from the previous maximum sentence for rape of 15 years in prison. Mr. Bio also announced the creation of a special police division and magistrates’ court dedicated to examining reports of sexual violence, as well as "free medical treatment and certificate to every victim of rape and sexual abuse" from all government hospitals.

Pressures leading up to these decisions stemmed from public outrage over several cases of sexual violence. In 2015, hundreds of women dressed in black marched against sexual violence when the body of a woman who had been raped and murdered was found on the beach. Women in Sierra Leone once again marched in black after the rape of a five-year-old girl by a 28-year-old male relative last year brought the issue back into the spotlight. The girl is now paralyzed from the waist down after the perpetrator partially crushed her spine.

In 2018, police statistics from Sierra Leone revealed more than 8,500 reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence. When  domestic violence was included, the number of cases rose to just over 12,000. Half of Sierra Leone’s female population is expected to face sexual or physical violence at some point, and 70 percent of survivors of sexual assault are under 15 years old. By comparison, the World Health Organization estimates that about one in three women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

The final drop in the bucket came from an Ebola survivor’s testimony of being repeatedly raped. After hearing the moving account, Mr. Bio declared the national emergency. He particularly noted the “culture of silence and indifference toward sexual violence” in his country.

The Parliament of Sierra Leone passed the first gender equality laws 12 years ago after repeated advocacy efforts by women's rights groups. Activists assert that the cultural taboo against speaking openly about sexual and gender-based issues prevent the proper prosecution of many cases involving sexual violence. In a case last year, a 56-year-old man raped a six-year-old girl and was sentenced to only one year in prison.

Among the activists is First Lady Fatima Bio who founded the "Hands Off Our Girls" campaign under the theme: “Ending Child Marriage and Reducing Teenage Pregnancy to Empower Women.” The campaign has received support from international organizations such as the United Nations Funds for Population Activities (UNFPA) and UNICEF.

In welcoming First Ladies from other African states at the campaign’s launching ceremony, First Lady Bio spoke of the social consequences of sexual violence and undervaluing girls’ education. “Almost all girls who are raped are most likely to drop out of school. If the girl child is forced into early marriage, the bride price lasts only for two months. But if the girl child is cared for until she finishes her education, the benefit to the parents lasts forever.”

“This act [sexual abuse and early marriage] is a bad cultural practice that needs to stop. Our girls should be safe and able to go to school in peace,” declared First Lady Bio. Sierra Leone’s recent demographic and health survey revealed that 13 percent of girls are married by age 15, and 39 percent of girls are married before age 18.

In a recent speech after declaring the national emergency, President Bio echoed the First Lady’s sentiments. “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. “We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”