Rape and sexual violence declared as national emergency

By Mary Foyah

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio on Thursday 7th February 2019 declared rape and sexual violence in the country as a national emergency. He outlined an ambitious plans including free hospital care to rape victims, creating special police and court divisions devoted to sexual violence and a national phone hotline to address the problem. He declared that sexual penetration of minors was now punishable by life imprisonment.

The country continues to experience hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults against women, girls and babies with over 3000 reported cases of sexual and gender based violence so far this year. The victims so far include a three-month-old. 70 percent of the survivors are under age 15. According to police statistics, in 2018, the country recorded more than 8,500 cases, almost doubling the figures recorded in 2017.

At the launch the President noted that of nearly 3,000 reported sexual assault cases, 602 of the survivors became pregnant; 7 of them contracted HIV/AIDS; 2,404 had sexually transmitted diseases (STDs); thousands more were scarred and traumatized by the ordeal. Only 39 of these 3,000 reported cases were successfully prosecuted whilst 2,961 of the survivors of sexual violence were denied justice. 

In addition to the Family Support Unit, a new police division, dedicated to investigating sexual violence will be set up. A special magistrate court will be dedicated to try sexual violence cases. The pronouncement made by the President regarding a mandatory life sentence for persons convicted of sexual penetration of a minor contradicts the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act 2012 which states a maximum sentence of fifteen years for persons convicted of the offence.

In December 2018, for instance, there was outrage over the sentencing of a 70-year-old rapist to two days in jail. Reports indicated that the judge, Justice John Bosco Allieu raised issues about the accused’s mental state even though no psychiatric evaluation had been done.   

Prosecution is also vital. In 2018, Rainbow Centres saw 3,137 cases of sexual and physical assaults in its 5 Centres but only 1.2% of those cases were prosecuted, said Dr. Olabisi Claudius Cole, Board Chair at Rainbo Center, a body that has been providing free medical and psychosocial help to survivors of gender-based violence. The centres have supported more than 30,000 women and girls that have survived rape and other forms of gender-based violence.

The declaration came just months following the launch by the First Lady of the ‘Hands off our girls’ a flagship programme that seeks to protect girls and minors from early marriage and teenage pregnancy. The December 2018 event was to ensure a zero tolerance for all forms of violence that would endanger the lives of woman in society. First Ladies from five West African nations, namely Chad, Ghana, Gambia, Liberia and Niger, were in attendance at the launch of the initiative to curb sexual-related offences.

Speaking at the event, the first lady, Mrs. Fatima Bio, remarked on the effects of any form of violence against women, saying, “Any man who rapes or places any form of violence against women and girls is not a real man and doesn’t fit in any decent society. 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.”

The launch of the event was however fraught with complaints of poor or no consultation by the Office of the First Lady with stakeholders who have been advocating about the issue for years. Agatha Ada Levi is Communications and Fundraising Officer at Rainbo Center, noted that the office of the First Lady did not hold consultative meetings with them to discuss the nature and extent of the problems, a claim refuted by an aide at the Office of the First Lady.  

Rainbo Center, she emphasized, has the expertise and the needed statistics and a partnership with the First Lady would be instrumental to the success of the ‘Hands off Our Girls’ campaign. Levi commended the ‘Hands off our Girls’ as a good initiative but proper coordination with the right partners could be of immense importance to its success. Since the campaign was launched, Rainbo Center has observed that there has been an increase in the number of sexual offence.

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