(SKY NEWS) — The case of a little girl who is paralysed after being raped by her uncle in Sierra Leone has led the president to declare sexual violence a national emergency.
The five-year-old, who is being kept anonymous for her safety, was paralysed from the waist down after her 28-year-old uncle raped her a year ago, crushing her spine.
“She may never walk again, and I want vengeance for what has happened,” her grandmother said.
“The man who did this ruined her life and deserves to spend his life in prison.”
Her case has outraged the West African country, where reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence nearly doubled last year to more than 8,500.
A third of those involved a minor.
But activists, including President Julius Maada Bio’s wife, Fatima, say the actual figures are much higher as most cases are never reported.
The maximum sentence for sexually-motivated crimes was only 15 years in prison, with few cases successfully prosecuted. Many sexual assaults go unpunished.
But after months of campaigning by activists, Mr Bio declared a national emergency and said people convicted of sexual offences against minors would face life in prison.
“Some of our families practise a culture of silence and indifference towards sexual violence, leaving victims even more traumatised,” he told a crowd at the State House.
“We as a nation must stand up and address this scourge.”
Gender-based violence is traditionally seen as a taboo topic in Sierra Leone. Politicians only passed the country’s first gender-equality laws 12 years ago, after pressure from women’s groups.
The policies have been implemented slowly, with police hampered by inadequate resources so criminals have been able to get away with it.
In December the first lady led a protest in the capital, Freetown, to raise awareness of gender-based violence.
She has also launched the Hands Off Our Girls campaign to increase awareness of violence against girls across West Africa.
Activists support the national emergency move, but say progress needs to continue.
Fatmata Sorie, president of LAWYERS, an all-female group of barristers providing 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.”