Hundreds of women Thursday marched along the streets of the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, to protest against an increasing spate of rape cases in the country.
Headed by Women in the Media Sierra Leone (WIMSL), an affiliate body of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, the protesters who included non-media women were clad in symbolic black dresses. They marched through the streets with banners denouncing rape.
In the past few months, there have been reported cases of rape of children as young as two years and even below. The women want the government to take urgent action to stop the menace.
A petition on the matter was submitted a petition to various government officials, including the ministers of Justice; Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs; the Chief Justice and the head of the police, as well as the office of the President.
Violence against women peaked at the height of the civil war, but going by recent reports, the high levels are creeping back.
In the Western regions alone, which includes Freetown, the Ministry of Social Welfare recorded over 100 cases in just one month (May).
There is fear that the number of victims might go up when figures for June and July are released.
What has particularly attracted attention the number of under-age girls who have become victims. Last month, a young girl reportedly died after been raped.
The women protesters want to see a tighter enforcement of the Sexual Offences Act passed last year. It crucially increased the minimum jail term for sex offenders from two to 15 years.
The protesters are also calling for more enhanced capacity at treatment centres for rape victims across the country.
'Culture of silence'
Prosecuting cases of rape is often compromised either by the police or family members of the victims.
Families are reluctant to report the cases in fear of reprisals. Others simply remain silent to guard against stigmatisation.
Campaigners say this ‘culture of silence' encourages sex offenders.
The government intends to discourage this trend with a threat to punish parents who fail to report the rape of their children.
The new sexual offenses law also discourages out-of-court settlements.
Earlier this year, a report by Don Bosco, an organisation which runs a girls' shelter, accused the Sierra Leone police of covering up many rape cases.
The girls' shelter has been in existence for just two years, within when the organisation says it recorded 521 "crisis interventions" involving girls and young women.
“It is not only the increasing brutality of the perpetrators of violence against the girls that is alarming, but also the rising number of rapes against girls and young women under the age of 14,” the report reads.
The police were found wanting for condoning a “culture of impunity by not properly investigating cases.”
In some cases, no investigation was done, like the case of a 13-year-old who got gang-raped by five male youth. She eventually died after five days in hospital, according to Don Bosco.
Perpetrators include school teachers, religious leaders, and strangers who are thought to be child traffickers.
Longer jail terms and proposals for sex convicts to lose more than half of their possessions are among suggestions currently being circulated.
A controversial proposal calls for castration of convicts.