Oumou Diallo | Tue, 5 Mar 2019
A silent epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence is hitting Sierra Leone. President Julius Maada Bio, on February 7 announced a state of emergency over sexual violence against women, children and babies.
“My government will continue to work with civil society organisations, development partners, and community stakeholders to address gaps and deficiencies in the Sexual Offences Act of 2012. I am directing close interagency collaboration in ensuring that the full cycle of services from reporting, investigation, treatment, after-care, and prosecution is free, uncomplicated, and delivery speedily” those are the words of the president disclosing the effort needed to address the issue. He advocated for life imprisonment for those who commit rape and for the creation of a Special Division for Rape and Sexual Penetration of Minors.
According to the country’s police more than 8,500 cases were recorded last year - a rise of nearly 4,000 on the figure from the previous year. However, the real figure of sexual violence is likely to be much higher as many cases go unreported.
Dr Olabisi Cole, who works at the International Rescue Committee in Freetown and Kenema explains that rape is civil war legacy. In fact, during Sierra Leone’s 11-years civil war – which ended in 2001 - rape was widespread, systematic and represented a weapon of war. ‘‘We'll kill you If you cry: sexual violence in the Sierra Leone conflict " is a report published by Human Rights Watch in 2003 which presents evidence of atrocities against women during the conflict including individual and gang rape, and rape with objects such as weapons and firewood.
In the aftermath of the conflict, the International Rescue Committee together with the Sierra Leone government founded the Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC). They are locally known as “rainbow centres" and they provide free psychosocial and medical care as well as legal advice.
Declaring a state of emergency is just the first step to raise awareness on the seriousness of the issue and review the current legislation. However, any government effort is undermined if at the community level the practice of a culture of silence or indifference about sexual violence is not eradicated.