What changed in Africa after President declared national emergency over rape

In 2019, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio made a significant move by declaring a national emergency on rape and sexual violence. Five years later, the media is examining whether survivors are receiving justice.

In Makeni, a city three hours from the capital, Freetown, a young mother sits outside her home with her three-year-old daughter. Anita (not her real name) recounts the distressing day in June 2023 when she discovered her daughter bleeding from her diaper. She had left her child with her employer’s 22-year-old son, who later claimed he was taking the girl to buy sweets. It was a lie.

Anita eventually found her daughter, who had been raped. At the hospital, two rounds of stitches confirmed the horrific attack. The doctor treating her daughter even cried. Anita reported the incident to the police, but the suspect fled, and a year later, he still hasn’t been found.

Anita is upset, recalling that President Maada Bio introduced stricter laws against child rape after declaring the state of emergency. The declaration followed a wave of public outrage in 2018, where hundreds of people wearing “Hands off our girls” shirts marched through Freetown after a horrific case of child rape. This spurred the government to create a tougher Sexual Offences Act, with minimum sentences of 15 years for rape and life imprisonment if a child is involved. A special court was also established to fast-track trials.

Despite these efforts, justice seems elusive for survivors like Anita’s daughter. A charity, the Rainbo Initiative, works with survivors of sexual violence, reporting that in 2022, only 5% of the cases it handled reached the High Court. At the Makeni police station where Anita reported her case, Asst Supt Abu Bakarr Kanu, who leads the Family Support Unit, says they face logistical challenges, lacking transport to apprehend suspects. This makes it difficult to make arrests even when the suspect is identified.

Another issue arises from the law itself. The attorney general is the only person authorized to sign indictments for sexual offenses, which creates a bottleneck in the legal process. This structure aims to expedite cases, but it often has the opposite effect, delaying justice.

Sierra Leone’s Information Minister Chernor Bah acknowledges the system’s flaws but insists there have been improvements since 2019. He says the government continues to work on refining the process. Although there is progress, many still believe it’s insufficient.

Anita has taken matters into her own hands, posting the suspect’s photo on Facebook, hoping someone will help find him. She’s desperate for justice, not only for her daughter but to prevent other children from suffering the same fate.

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