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Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency over sexual and gender-based violence after recorded cases of rape and assault doubled over the last year.

President Julius Maada Bio announced the emergency on Thursday amid a public outcry over the issue, triggered by a series of high-profile attacks.

Mr Bio said attacks on minors – which account for a third of all cases – would be punished with a life sentence.

Activists say many assaults are not punished under current laws.

According to police statistics, more than 8,500 cases were recorded last year – a rise of nearly 4,000 on the figure from the previous year.

Mr Bio declared the emergency at State House in Freetown after hearing the testimony of an Ebola survivor who had repeatedly been raped.

“With immediate effect, sexual penetration of minors is punishable by life imprisonment,” he said, visibly moved by the survivor’s account.

He also announced the formation of a dedicated police division to investigate reports of sexual violence, as well as a special magistrates’ court that would fast-track cases, the AFP news agency reports.

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