Sierra Leone president declares rape a national emergency

In this Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 file photo, Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Sierra Leone's president has declared a national emergency over rape and sexual violence, saying perpetrators are getting younger and their acts more violent.

In a keynote address on Thursday, President Julius Maada Bio said hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assault are reported each month in the West African nation against women, girls and babies as young as three months old.

Those who sexually assault minors will face life in imprison, the president declared, saying that some 70 percent of victims are under age 15. The current law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years, and very few cases have been prosecuted.

"With this declaration, I have also directed the following: that all government hospitals must provide free medical treatment and certificate to every victim of rape and sexual abuse," he said.

Bio's declaration comes after months of campaigning by activists.

Thousands of cases are unreported because of a culture of silence or indifference, leaving victims traumatized, he said, adding that he wants to increase awareness.

The government will engage communities and civil society in dialogue to end the scourge that is slowly wrecking the nation, the president said. That will involve addressing gaps in the Sexual Offences Act of 2012, he said.

Bio also ordered the creation of a special police division for rape and sexual violence against minors.

Dr. Olabisi Claudius Cole, head of the Rainbo Initiative that provides free medical and psychosocial services for survivors of gender-based violence, called the president's declaration a landmark in tackling such violence in Sierra Leone.

It had been made possible by the tireless voices of survivors and activists, she said.

First Lady Fatima Bio said all forms of sexual violence are unacceptable and menaces to society.