The President of Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency after a five-year-old was left paralyzed from the waist down after being savagely raped.
The toddler had her spine crushed after being attacked by a 28-year-old uncle last year.
President Julius Maada Bio hit out at the sexual violence plaguing the African country after crime rates rocketed.
The girl’s grandmother said: “She may never walk again and I want vengeance for what has happened. The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
Currently, sexually motivated crimes carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison with many crimes going unpunished but Bio has promised a crackdown and to toughen up sentencing.
He said in a speech at the State House: “Some of our families practice a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatized.”
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
He added that those convicted of sexual offenses against minors would face life in prison.
Cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year to more than 8,500, according to police statistics.
A third of those involved a minor.
Campaigners, including First Lady Fatima Bio, say the real figure is much higher as many cases are never reported.
Gender-based violence is traditionally seen as a taboo topic in Sierra Leone and it was only 12 years ago the country passed its first gender equality laws.
The first lady led a demonstration in December in the capital Freetown to raise awareness of the issue and has launched a campaign called ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ in an attempt to increase awareness of violence against girls across West Africa.
Fatmata Sorie, who is president of Legal Access through Women Yearning for Equality Rights and Social Justice (LAWYERS) — an all-female group of barristers who provide pro bono legal services to vulnerable women and girls, said: “We still need to think about how services for survivors are not accessible, especially for the poor.
“We’ve made a big step today, but this is a very complex issue that will require complex and continuing solutions.”