Ruthie Ackerman

Ruthie Ackerman is a freelance journalist specializing in Africa.

Liberia shows the way to deal with gender-based violence by establishing special courts and laws to try rapists and through empowering women and girls. Type in the words “Liberia rape” and “after the war” and Google’s search engine will return 470,000 results in 0.38 seconds.

One such result is a blog written in 2008 by Azama who witnessed a group of Liberian women shares their testimonies of rape and other brutalities before a large audience at the Monrovia City Hall. “They then tore off my clothes and raped me one after another and told my brother to have me, when he refused, they threatened to kill him,” explained a victim from Lofa who was raped by eight men, including her brother, during the invasion in 2003 of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. “And so I beg him to, which he did because I didn’t want them to kill my only living relative at the time. My brother and I do not speak up till present, when he sees me, he goes another place as I also do; we are not on good term.” The woman said that she still used a wheelchair most of the time because of the pain. “I’m still suffering from the rape.”

This particular rape happened towards the end of the 14-year Liberian civil war, which started in 1989. Amnesty International reported that between 60 and 70 per cent of the Liberian population suffered some form of sexual violence during the conflict, although the numbers are probably a lot higher because many rapes go unreported. Unfortunately, Liberia is not alone where rape has been used as a tactic of war. Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Darfur, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Rwanda also hold that distinction.

What is often not reported, is that countless more acts of sexual violence have occurred since the conflict ended in Liberia. Just because the war is over does not mean that the war against women has ended. According to the United Nations, there were 349 rapes reported between January and June 2008, a significant increase over the previous year. Access to health facilities to address emergency needs and psychological care are inadequate, making matters worse for those who have been raped.

In fact, the same impunity that allowed rampaging soldiers to rape women and young girls during the war still exists in many parts of Liberia today. “Liberians thought that since peace has been restored in the country, sexual based violence against women and children would have decreased, but this is not the case, it continues to increase on a daily basis, especially when these people know that the survivors know them”, said Patricia Kamara, Assistant Minister for Research and Technical Services at the Ministry of Gender and Development to a group of journalists in Monrovia during a two-day workshop.

Luckily for Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president in Africa, is a true advocate for women. But even so, the challenges of tackling sexual violence are daunting.

The first time many in the international community woke up to the horrors of rape in Liberia was when it happened outside of the country. In July 2009, an eight-year-old Liberian refugee living in Arizona, United States, was raped by four young Liberians in a shed in her apartment complex. The young girl knew the perpetrators — so did her family. After the girl was attacked, her family, including her father, blamed her for the rape. The media was outraged and the police removed the girl from her home and placed her in foster care.

What no one in the media talked about was that many women in Liberia are stigmatized after being raped, and shunned by their families and neighbors. This is why many sexual crimes go unreported, allowing the perpetrators to walk free. Families of victims often try to settle cases out of court, or obstruct the prosecution entirely. According to the Liberian National Police, 780 rape and sexual violence cases were reported to its special protection unit for women and children in 2008, but fewer than a quarter were pursued in court.

RIGHT STEPS Liberia is taking steps in the right direction. In December 2008, a special court was established to fast-track rape cases. Speaking at the dedication, President Sirleaf recognized the importance of the court in combating rape and gender-based violence, which has been on the rise despite Liberia’s passage of the 2006 Rape Amendment Act, imposing stricter penalties (seven years to life) for the most serious cases, while denying bail to accused rapists.

President Sirleaf also initiated the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Crimes Unit, which is supervised by the Ministry of Justice, and includes a hotline that allows the public to use their cell phones to report rape cases in their communities. Another positive development is that restrooms specifically for girls are being built in schools throughout the country. Before these restrooms had been installed, parents would keep their daughters at home for fear of rape and other dangers.

One highlight of President Sirleaf’s efforts to step up prosecution and punishment of rapists, is that more women seem to be coming forward to speak about the injustices done to them. The next step will be ensuring the perpetrators are dealt with accordingly, which will entail revamping the judicial sector so that the police, courts and prison system run effectively.

The truth is that even with a tough female president, getting a conviction is difficult, if not altogether impossible. “We don’t have a judiciary that’s sensitized to rape as a crime against humanity,” President Sirleaf said in an interview in New York in 2009. “We also don’t have rape victims and their families who are open to admission [about the rape] and are ready to go to court.”

Combating violence against women will mean challenging gender roles, not only in Liberia, but around the world. Until equality between the sexes fully exists, rape will continue unabated. And when rape is used as a tool of intimidation and fear both on the battlefield and off, not only do women suffer, but society as a whole falls apart.

The UN Chronicle is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.

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