Books and bills: Tackling sexual violence in Sierra Leone

In February 2019, amid a slew of high-profile cases and pressure from the public, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared a state of emergency over sexual and gender-based violence in the country.

The move followed the rape of a five-year-old girl, who was left paralysed from the waist down, and relentless campaigning by grassroots groups.

It allowed the government to enact drastic measures without parliamentary approval, including the introduction of maximum life sentences for those found guilty of sexually abusing a minor.

Activists welcomed what they saw as willingness from top officials to put sexual and gender-based violence on the national agenda and tackle a taboo that has long plagued the West African country of 7.5 million.

More than 200,000 girls and women may have suffered from sexual violence during the country’s brutal 1991-2002 civil war, according to a 2002 report, produced with assistance from the United Nations.

An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 exacerbated the problem, closing schools across the country for eight months, which left girls vulnerable to assault and resulted in a surge in teenage pregnancy.

One year on from Bio’s announcement – and with the state of emergency having been quietly revoked in June – opinions differ as to the move’s effectiveness in creating long-term change.

“There has been a difference in the response to the issue because people are better informed,” Alison French, advocacy and communications director for Rainbo Initiative (RI), told Al Jazeera. “There is the political will and so the reporting of cases have increased.”

RI says it is the only organisation in Sierra Leone providing free medical and psychosocial treatment for survivors of gender-based violence. Its five centres recorded 1,966 rape cases in the first six months of 2019 – an increase in the same period compared with the year before. The majority of the cases involved children.

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