Sierra Leone’s president has declared a national emergency over rape and sexual violence, saying perpetrators are getting younger and their acts more violent.

“With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” President Julius Maada Bio said in a keynote address on Thursday, visibly moved by the testimony of an Ebola survivor who had been raped, the BBC reported

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. He said some 70 percent of victims are under 15. 

The current law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years, and very few cases have been prosecuted.

Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio addresses the audience during an event in which he declared national emergency on rape and sexual violence, in Freetown
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio addresses the audience during an event in which he declared national emergency on rape and sexual violence, in Freetown, Sierra Leone February 7, 2019. Stringer /REUTERS

“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.

More than 8,500 assault cases were recorded last year — a rise of nearly 4,000 on the figure from the previous year — in a country of 7.5 million people, the BBC reported.

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.