Rape survivors in Liberia are increasingly speaking up and seeking help as awareness of rights increases, but social taboos persist and seeking justice does not always mean that justice is served.
Sexual violence consistently comes first or second (after armed robbery) in monthly police crime listings in the capital Monrovia. The majority of rape victims are children, according to treatment centre statistics. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Monrovia reports their youngest survivor at 21 months old.
“The civil war is over,” said Monrovia resident Tupee Kiadi. “But the new war is rape, especially targeting teenagers and babies. During the war we had peacekeepers to prevent further violence…but women do not have peacekeepers to stop rape.”
During the war women and girls were subjected to rape (commonly gang rape) and sexual slavery, many becoming pregnant from rape. Since peace was sealed in 2003, sex crimes – and impunity – have persisted throughout the country.
MSF launched a campaign on 26 October with the message “Rape is a hospital and clinical business”, to bring rape out into the open and to educate Liberians about the free MSF-run medical and psychological services at Island Hospital in Tweh Farm, western Monrovia.
Clinic visits are up over recent years, said MSF psychologist Elias Abi-aad, who hopes further awareness has been raised by the campaign. Elizabeth Zro, a social worker and counsellor at the clinic, told IRIN, “Rape is a huge problem here, but people are more open about it now than they used to be a few years ago.”
The MSF clinic takes in on average 70 patients per month, 80 percent of whom are girls under 18; just under half of those aged 12 and under. In addition to a medical examination, survivors are given protection from sexually transmitted infection, means to block HIV infection and pregnancy if it is within 72 hours of the crime, a medical certificate that can be used in court and several rounds of counseling.
Deweh Gray, president of the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL), told IRIN: “The changing attitude we see is the increased reporting of these cases by people who want to access the system.”
While awareness has improved, rape is still taboo in many families, said counselor Zro. “Lots of communities question it – ‘Did he really rape you?’ they ask.” The silence extends to any subjects surrounding sex, family planning or reproductive health, she added.
Some NGOs, including Catholic Relief Services, are trying to encourage families to openly discuss sexual violence and sexual health, and to educate children about “good” and “bad” touching. Only by facilitating discussion can the stigma be broken down, CRS health and nutrition officer Suena Sambola told IRIN.
AFELL, along with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and other institutions, helped the Liberian government set up a special court on rape and sexual violence in September 2008 and is now trying to encourage more survivors to bring cases forward.
So far the court has processed just four cases. There is still a big discrepancy between the number of medical cases reported and the number of police reports filed county by county, according to Sadiq Syed, Gender Based Violence (GBV) adviser at UNFPA.
This is partly because it still takes so long for national courts to pass cases onto the special court, he added. But he said the system should speed up now that public defenders are in place, and the ministries of gender, social welfare and justice are starting to work more closely on sexual violence issues.
“We realize everyone is anxious to see cases being tried but…the dynamics of a rape trial are not easy,” AFELL’s Gray told IRIN. Delays in cases mean witnesses may disappear or evidence is destroyed, which means some cases are dropped.
UNFPA supports the government on GBV issues, and has trained half of Liberia’s 400 magistrates in witness protection, confidentiality and other areas vital to making a rape trial work. Just 5 percent of Liberia’s magistrates went to law school, said Syed.
Felecia Coleman, chief prosecutor at the sexual violence court, told IRIN over 140 people in Montserrado County are awaiting trial on rape charges. “The fact that people are in prison and trials are going on for rape is a good signal in the fight,” she said.
But more training is needed for staff of the police’s women and child protection section, aid workers say. And more social workers are needed to counsel victims said Abi-aad. “The government is taking rape seriously but more social workers are needed…rape is mainly a psychological issue,” he told IRIN.
UNFPA is working with the Ministry of Social Welfare to try to train more social workers to support survivors, said Syed. Women continue to live in fear, Monrovia inhabitant Macdell Smallwood, aged 13, told IRIN. “Because of rape cases in Monrovia I am afraid to even move around with my friends…We cannot go out or play freely, as we used to when we were younger.” Courtesy of IRIN, November 19, 2009/Mpnrovia