The brutal rape of a young girl by her uncle has become a rallying point in Sierra Leone for a campaign that has pushed President Julius Maada Bio to declare the prevalence of sexual violence a national emergency.
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.
“She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened,” her grandmother told the Reuters news agency, sitting next to the girl in her wheelchair in a Freetown medical clinic.
“The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
Following months of campaigning by activists, the president said those convicted of sexual offences against minors would face life sentences.
“Some of our families practise a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatised,” Bio told a crowd at the State House on Thursday.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge,” he said.
“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 added.
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 traditionally seen as a taboo topic in Sierra Leone. Only 12 years ago, its parliament passed the first gender equality laws in 46 years of independence, following efforts by women’s rights groups.
In December, the first lady led a demonstration in the capital to raise awareness on the issue, and has since launched her “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign on violence against girls across West Africa.
Dr Olabisi Claudius Cole, head of the Rainbo Initiative that provides free medical and psychosocial services for survivors of gender-based violence, called the president’s declaration a landmark in tackling sexual violence in Sierra Leone.
Thank you to The President of Sierra Leone for this morning declaring a national state of emergency on sexual and gender-based violence. Here is the speech we delivered in front of the President, First Lady and other honourable ministers this morning at State House 🇸🇱 pic.twitter.com/SByVml1IAB
— Rainbo Initiative (@RainboCentres) February 7, 2019