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Sierra Leone president declares rape a national emergency

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Sierra Leone’s president has officially declared a national emergency on rape and sexual violence in a major step toward addressing the issue in the West African nation.

President Julius Maada Bio on Thursday said each month hundreds of cases of rape and sexual assaults are being reported against women, girls and babies. He said some fatalities included three-month-olds and that 70 percent of survivors are under 15.

Bio said he wants to bring awareness since thousands of cases are unreported because of a culture of silence or indifference.

He said he has now made sexual penetration of minors punishable by life imprisonment. The current law carries a maximum penalty of 15 years, and very few cases have been prosecuted.

Bio’s declaration comes after months of campaigning by activists.