LONDON — Amid growing outrage over the rape of a 5-year-old girl, the president of Sierra Leone declared sexual violence a national emergency, vowing that sex with minors would be punishable by life in prison.
Cases of rape and sexual abuse are spiraling up in the West African country, which is still reeling from a civil war and an Ebola outbreak that killed thousands of people.
Seventy percent of survivors of sexual assault are under the age of 15, President Julius Maada Bio said in a speech on Thursday.
“Each month, hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults are being reported in this country,” Mr. Bio said. “Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference toward sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized.”
Mr. Bio directed state hospitals to care for victims of rape and sexual abuse free of charge.
Outrage has mounted in recent weeks over the brutal rape last year of the 5-year-old girl. The case was never prosecuted, drawing attention to the lingering sense of impunity around sexual violence. The girl was paralyzed from the waist down after her spine was crushed when she was raped, Reuters reported, and her 28-year-old uncle was suspected of the assault.
Civil society groups have called on the government to act in the wake of reports that cases of sexual and gender-based violence have increased by nearly 10 percent each year since 2015. In 2017, more than 12,000 such cases were reported, according to police data.
Many cases are never reported, making the actual figure much higher, activists said. The president’s wife, Fatima Bio, has also been an active campaigner to stop the violence.
Almost half of Sierra Leone’s women face sexual or physical violence during their lifetime, and 90 percent of women aged 15 to 49 have been victims of genital cutting, according to United Nations data.
Sexual violence against women and girls was widespread during the country’s decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002. Victims testified during international trials about the brutality of rebels, who used mutilation and rape against the civilian population. One of the hallmarks of the conflict were “bush wives” — women and girls forced into sexual slavery by rebels.
A United Nations report presented after the end of the conflict found that the expectation of impunity encouraged violence against women.
But an Ebola outbreak in 2014 wrecked the country and set back its fragile peacetime development, including progress against gender-based violence. In the aftermath of the deadly epidemic, children — many of them orphaned — emerged more vulnerable to forced labor and sexual violence, according to a report by Save the Children, the international relief organization.
Women’s rights have been slow to be recognized in Sierra Leone. In 2007, the nation introduced legislation to fight domestic violence. It was not until 2012 that the country passed a law criminalizing sex with minors, setting the age of consent at 18.
The number of convictions in trials for sexual violence continues to lag. Cases are sometimes settled out of court between families. Victims can’t afford to pay for justice, and corruption is rife in the court system, activists say.
The Rainbo Initiative, an organization in Sierra Leone that helps abuse victims, praised the government’s move to declare a national emergency, according to a statement on Twitter.
The group said it was overwhelmed with 10 to 15 new cases every day, typically involving girls under 17 — the youngest survivor this year was 12-months-old, and another survivor was pregnant at 12 — who reported that they had been raped by someone they knew. Only 1.2 percent of the court cases for which it provides evidence are successfully prosecuted.
In an online post, Vickie Remoe, a TV producer and blogger on issues in Sierra Leone, said the law was rarely enforced.
“Political will alone will not fix the problem. What we need is behavioral change,” she wrote, including a list of 12 things men could do to join the fight against rape.
“Men need to learn to think differently about girls, and to act differently towards girls,” she said.