The brutal rape of a young girl by her uncle in Sierra Leone became the rallying point for a campaign that on Thursday pushed President Julius Maada Bio to declare the prevalence of sexual violence a national emergency.
The five-year-old girl, whose identity has been kept secret for her own safety, has been paralyzed from the waist down since a 28-year-old male relative raped her a year ago, crushing her spine.
“She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened,” her grandmother told Reuters, sitting next to the girl in her wheelchair in a Freetown medical clinic.
“The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
The assault was one of many that have gone unpunished in Sierra Leone, where until now sexually-motivated crimes carried a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and few cases were successfully prosecuted.
Following months of campaigning by activists, the president declared a national emergency and said those convicted of sexual offenses against minors would face life in prison.
“Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized,” Bio told a crowd at the State House.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
According to police statistics, reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year to over 8,500, a third of which involved a minor. Activists, including First Lady Fatima Bio, say the actual figures are much higher as most cases are never reported.