13 February 2019

Sierra Leone: 'Hands Off Our Girls' - Govt Declares Rape a National Emergency

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio is fighting to end the culture of "indifference" and impunity surrounding rape and sexual violence by declaring it a national emergency. This will provide support to the First Lady's "Hands off our girls" protection project.

The First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Bio, launched the "Hands off our girls" project to protect girls from sexual abuse, early marriage and teenage pregnancy.

According to that country's recent demographic and health survey, 13% of girls are married by their 15th birthday and 39% of girls before their 18th birthday. According to the World Health Organisation, teenage pregnancy is also a leading cause of death for mothers in Sierra Leone, with the maternal mortality rate at 1 360 deaths per 100 000 live births.

When launching the project in December 2018, Fatima Bo said, "People want to link this dastardly act to religion, but as a Muslim I know it is not in the Quran, nor is it in the Bible. 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."

In 2018 alone, more than 2 300 rape cases were reported. Fatima Bio believes an example needs to be made of those who rape girls by the handing down of life sentences.

"We must make examples of these men who say they protect their own children at home while they are running after other girls. The laws must be changed and we must continue the education, especially civic education, to teach these men that girls must be in school and not running homes. Rapists are humans - they must not be protected but should go to jail for life."

National emergency

President Julius Maada Bio's declaration of a national emergency comes after his nation has expressed a grievance over the rising prevalence of sexual and domestic violence cases. Police figures of the last three years show that 12 029 cases were reported in 2017, 11 362 in 2016, and 10 544 in 2015.

According to CNN, President Bio said his government would work with civil societies and development partners to improve laws that criminalise rape and other forms of gender-based violence.

Bio directed that victims of sexual attacks should be provided with free medical services at public hospitals and that perpetrators of assault against minors should face life imprisonment. Currently a person convicted of rape in Sierra Leone spends between five and 15 years in prison. One third of all reported cases of rape in 2018 involved a minor, police statistics show.

"As a nation, we must address this scourge. Sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment," Bio said while speaking at the State House in the capital, Freetown.

"My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society. Any man who rapes will be jailed forever, so that a single rape becomes the last rape," President Bio said.

He also asked citizens to join in the fight to restore the "pride and dignity" of women and girls in the country.

"Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatised," Bio told the crowd. "We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge."

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