Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio has declared rape and sexual violence a “national emergency,” following a series of cases involving minors in the country.

Bio said those found guilty of raping minors could face life imprisonment and directed all public hospitals to provide free medical services for victims of sexual assault.

“As a nation, we must address this scourge. Sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” Bio said on Thursday while speaking at the State House in the capital, Freetown.

The announcement comes amid calls by activists and Sierra Leone’s First Lady Fatima Bio for stricter punishment for perpetrators of sexual violence.

President Bio said his government would work with civil societies and development partners to improve laws criminalizing rape and other forms of gender violence.

Reported cases of sexual-based and domestic violence have been on the rise in Sierra Leone in the last three years, with 12,029 cases reported in 2017, 11,362 in 2016, and 10,544 in 2015, according to police figures.

Sierra Leone first lady Fatima Bio is championing a campaign against rape and child marriage.
Sierra Leone first lady Fatima Bio is championing a campaign against rape and child marriage.

In December, Bio, while lending support to the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign, promised to enforce stricter laws to serves as a deterrent for rape. Currently a person convicted of rape in Sierra Leone spends between five and 15 years in prison.

The campaign, which seeks to end sexual abuse against women and girls and child marriage in the country, is championed by the First Lady.

“My government will ensure that men who rape have no place in society and also any man who rapes will be jailed forever so that a single rape becomes the last rape,” President Bio said.

He called on citizens to join in the fight to the restore the “pride and dignity” of women and girls in the country.