Trigger Warning: This article details sexual violence and child sexual abuse.
Rampant rape and sexual violence in Sierra Leone has become so prevalent that its president, Julius Maada Bio, has declared a national emergency, according to CBS News.
The rallying point of this declaration is the brutal rape of a five-year-old girl by her uncle. As a result of this extreme degree of sexual violence, the victim is paralyzed from the waste down after her spine was crushed during the assault.
“She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened,” her grandmother told the Reuters news agency, as she sat 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.”
“With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” President Julius Maada Bio announced Thursday in a keynote address on Thursday.
“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 continued.
According to Bio, 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, with 70 percent of the victims under the age of 15.
The maximum penalty for such an egregious offense is 15 years, however very few cases have been prosecuted, in part due to the country’s culture of silence or indifference.
Of additional note, as a result of this declaration, a special police division for rape and sexual violence against minors will also be created in an attempt to curb escalating assault cases—as they skyrocketed to over 8,500 last year, a jump of more than 4,000 from the year before.
Bio also announced the government will “engage communities and civil society in dialogue to end the scourge that is slowly wrecking the nation”, in addition to addressing gaps in the Sexual Offences Act of 2012.
The Rainbow Initiative, which provides free medical and therapeutic resources to survivors of gender-based violence, is headed by Dr. Olabisi Claudius Cole—who thanked survivors and activists for their tireless work to make these changes possible.