Recently, Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio declared the culture of “indifference” and impunity surrounding rape and sexual violence a national emergency. Not long before that, in December 2018, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Bio, launched the “Hands off our girls” project to protect girls from sexual abuse, early marriage and teenage pregnancy. This is huge in terms of the how the country’s government shows seriousness towards violence against women and how they care to fight against sexual abuse.

Closer home in India, while we have begun conversations around sexual abuse and crimes against women, we are far from declaring it a national emergency. With movements as big as #MeToo which bared the rampant sexual harassment in workplace to the Dignity March, giving a glimpse of the sheer number of sexual abuse survivors in the country, we are still at a position where impunity is a serious issue.

“We must make examples of these men who say they protect their own children at home while they are running after other girls. The laws must be changed and we must continue the education, especially civic education, to teach these men that girls must be in school and not running homes. Rapists are humans – they must not be protected but should go to jail for life,” said Bio at the launch of the “hands off our girls” project.

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While in India, a few cases which caught national media attention like the Bhanwari Devi gangrape of 1992, 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape, Kathua and Unnao rape cases of 2018 were crucial in the formation of Vishakha guidelines to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace and amendment of rape laws and POCSO in the country. But all this hasn’t changed the condition of women’s safety. PM Narendra Modi, at a recent event in Surat, said, “Rapes used to occur earlier as well. It is shameful and when we hear about such incidents, we hang our heads in shame. But today death penalties are… within 3 days, 7 days, 11 days and one month.”

With the amendment in POCSO, where rape convicts of children below the age of 12 will be given death penalty, it is true that more rapists will get death penalty but even the rapists who have gotten death penalty haven’t been hanged yet. The last time a person was executed for rape and murder was in 2004. Even convicts in the Nirbhaya case haven’t been hanged yet.

Despite safety measures and awareness, the rate at which sexual violence happens in India continues to grow. This happens because of the lack of seriousness by law-enforcing agencies who themselves require training in sensitively handling such crimes against women. The latest annual National Crime Records Bureau report, which came out in 2016, stated that the percentage of reported cases of crime against women has gone up by 30% from 21,106 in 2012 to 27,442 in 2016 in Rajasthan. Another issue is that most women don’t even report sexual violence because of lack of faith in the system.

Despite safety measures and awareness, the rate at which sexual violence happens in India continues to grow. This happens because of the lack of seriousness by the law-enforcing agencies who themselves require training in sensitively handling such crimes against women

Currently, the rate at which rape cases are reported in the country is at 6.3 per 100,000 of the population. While this looks like it is fairly lower than a lot of countries, what we need to consider is that about 99% of cases of sexual violence go unreported, according to a LiveMint report. This would bring India above several other countries across the world in terms of crimes against women.

Seirra Leone’s President has not just acknowledged the rising prevalence of sexual and domestic violence cases but has also vowed to work with civil societies and development partners to improve laws that criminalise rape and other forms of gender-based violence. He has also declared free medical services at public hospitals for victims of sexual attacks.

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

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

When the country’s leader decides to speak up against crimes against women, it gives confidence to women and instills faith in the policies and judiciary. We need such kind of revolution starting from the top tier that trickles down to  society to bring a massive change in the safety scenario of the country.

More Stories by Poorvi Gupta

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