In February President of Sierra Leone, Julius Maada Bio, declared rape and sexual violence against women a national emergency. The move comes after a string of cases involving minors were recently reported in the country. President Bio has called for Sierra Leone hospitals to provide free treatment and care to victims of sexual assault and has warned that individuals found guilty of raping minors will face life in prison.
President Bio further announced that a dedicated police division would be formed to investigate reports of sexual assault, as well as the magistrates court now having the ability to fast-track assault cases.
First lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Bio, has long called for tougher sentencing for perpetrators of sexual assault, with the launch of the ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign in December 2018. The initiative aims to empower women in Sierra Leone by ‘ending child marriage and reducing teenage pregnancy’.
“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,” the First Lady said.
Mrs. Bio has called on support from other First Ladies of Africa and local authorities to help tackle the issue and promote change throughout the continent. The United Nations has also thrown their support behind ‘Hands Off Our Girls’, with Dr. Eva Dickinson, Representative of United Nations Funds for Population Activities, saying that the U.N. is working tirelessly to end child marriage, teen pregnancy and rape.
“This is a fight we must do together because it resonates with our activities. UNFPA and UNICEF will do everything humanly possible to support the government of Sierra Leone and this programme,” Dr. Dickinson said.
According to data gathered by Sierra Leone police, the number of reported sexual assault and domestic violences cases has been on the rise in recent years with 12,029 cases reported in 2017, 11,362 in 2016, and 10,544 in 2015. This is a 5.5% increase year on year.
Comparatively, last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that sexual assaults in Australia were up 8% in 2017 from 23,040 t0 24,957. According to Victims of Crime data 82% of sexual assault victims in 2017 were women, a quarter of them being aged 19 years old or younger. This does not necessarily mean that sexual assault is more prevalent in Australia than Sierra Leone, but that survivors report their assaults to police more often. Does Australia have a problem with sexual and domestic violence against women? You bet. And should it be declared a national emergency? Of course.
The stone cold facts are that one in three women in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence. One in four women will experience emotional abuse from a partner. 85% of Australian women have been sexually harassed in their lifetime. This percentage increases to a shocking 92% for LGBTQI women. And most horrifically, an average of one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner in Australia. Those numbers are just too high to bear.
It’s all too easy in a wealthy and developed country like Australia to think these problems only reach national crisis levels in Developing Countries, like Sierra Leone. However, that’s just not the reality. Women the world over deserve the human right to live free and unafraid of becoming an all too common statistic. It’s high time for a cultural shift towards equality and respect, across the world. It’s time for action.
1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers 24 hour national sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
Words by Alicia Franceschini