Liberia Becoming Leader in Eradicating Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

 

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MONROVIA, LIBERIA – Korlu, a young mother of two, lives on the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital.

A high school dropout, Korlu, who declined to give her last name for safety reasons, says she got pregnant as a teenager.

“My parents put me out of their house because they couldn’t bear the shame of me getting pregnant,” she says.

She says she had to move in with the father of her baby when she was 17. He beat her and she says she accepted the beatings.

But then one day she says she was listening to the radio and heard women talking about how sexual and gender-based violence was not OK.

“It was tough,” Korlu says. “They were speaking directly about me.”

The women on the radio were from the Liberia Women Media Action Committee, LIWOMAC, an organization promoting the rights of women through media here since 2003. She says the committee educated her about domestic violence, teaching her to report it to the police.

“Before my husband would beat me, and I would accept it,” she says. “But nowadays, I report my husband to the police when he beats on me or tries to beat me because I know it is domestic violence.”

She says this has pressured him to stop beating her.

“Because I report my husband or threate[n] to report him when he tries to beat me, he doesn’t beat me anymore,” she says with a smile.

But there are many other Liberian women who still face violence daily.

The government and the United Nations have called sexual and gender-based violence an integral part of gender relations in Liberia, which has been exacerbated by decades of civil war. Various nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, have been working to educate women that violence against them is not acceptable. Meanwhile, the government and international organizations have implemented new prevention and response measures, such as special police and judicial divisions to deal with sexual and gender-based violence cases.
Women’s empowerment has been a growing phenomenon in Liberia since Leymah Gbowee, a female social worker, famously led a peace movement that helped end more than 14 years of civil war in Liberia in 2003. The Second Liberian civil war began in 1999, when anti-government fighting broke out in the north. This was following the First Liberian civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1996.

Now Liberia has a woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in 2006 as Africa’s first female president. Sirleaf’s government has been proactive against sexual and gender-based violence, or SGBV as it is widely known here, but there is still a deep-rooted culture of acceptance to undo.

Sexual and gender-based violence is not only prevalent in Liberia, but it’s also accepted as an integral part of gender relations, according to a joint government and U.N. report. This was exacerbated during Liberia’s civil war, as sexual and gender-based violence was used as a weapon of war.

While combatants were the principal perpetrators during the war, now husbands, partners, family members and teachers are, according to the joint report. Rape continues to be the most frequently reported serious crime here, with nearly half of cases reported in 2007 involving children under 18.

Almost half – 45 percent – of Liberian women ages 15 to 49 said they had experienced physical violence since age 15, according to the most recent Liberian Demographic and Health Survey, LDHS, in 2007. More than 60 percent of ever-married women reported their current husband or partner as a perpetrator. Never-married women attributed the violence to parents and stepparents.

Nearly 20 percent of women surveyed said they’d been the victims of sexual violence, according to the LDHS. Gender-based violence also includes verbal abuse, restrictions in freedom of movement and the withholding of funds.

As in other societies, women are socialized to accept, tolerate, rationalize and remain silent about violence here, according to the LDHS. Liberia’s weak justice system, pervasive poverty and a lack of economic opportunities for perpetrators have made the country especially vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, according to UNICEF.

But women in Liberia say that they have been becoming more empowered in recent years.

Ma Lusu, a woman who sells goods at the local market, says women’s empowerment is a unique and growing phenomenon in Liberia. She says that women used to embrace female circumcision or domestic violence as a way of life, but now women have been at the forefront of speaking out against such ills in society.

“I am happy I now have equal rights as a man,” says Ma Cece, a women’s rights advocate in Lofa, a county that is a 10-hour drive from Monrovia. “We have suffered a whole lot, and now is our time.”

Scott Johnson, a female journalist and LIWOMAC member, believes the committee’s efforts have been fruitful in helping to change the acceptance of domestic violence by Korlu and many other girls and women. She says promoting women’s rights is the key to empowering them.

“I am happy that I can hear a 12-year-old girl stand out and talk about her rights as a woman, which was never the case before,” she says.

The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, AFELL, is another NGO helping to stop sexual and gender-based violence in Liberia. Zeor Daylue Bernard, lawyer and AFELL president, says AFELL’s mission is to advocate for the protection, promotion and advancement of women in Liberia.

“Our role in stopping SGBV is advocating for women who have been violated and represent victims at the court,” she says.

Bernard says advocating for women’s rights is her passion.

“What has really compelled me to advocate for women is the fact that we are the most vulnerable and marginalized group in our society,” she says.

She says AFELL’s campaigns have even influenced the justice system here.

“Through AFELL’s advocacy, a court solely responsible for trying SGBV-related case[s] was formed known as the Criminal Court E, and there was serious amendment to the rape law of Liberia as means to discourage such a heinous crime,” she says.

She says AFELL also organizes a march during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, an international campaign commemorated annually by organizations worldwide during November and December. 

Oritha Brooks, a women’s rights advocate and counselor, helped organize last year’s march against violence and discrimination against women.

“We are working hard to put an end to all forms of violence against women of Liberia,” Brooks says.

Tennen Dalieh, a university student, says last year’s AFELL march changed her perception of violence against women.

“It was empowering and educative,” she says. “From this march, I can now join the fight against SGBV.”

She says it made her optimistic for the future.

“These men will not take advantage of us again,” she says.

Men also participated in last year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

George Sagbeh, deputy chief prosecutor of the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Crimes Unit, the special unit that handles sexual and gender-based violence cases in Liberia’s judicial system, says the unit organized various activities during the 16 days.

“We had special radio talk shows dedicated to raising awareness on SGBV and other activities hampering the growth of women in Liberia,” he says.

Liberia’s chief justice created the unit in 2009 to enable victims of sexual and gender-based violence to easily access justice by providing a platform, Special Court E, for their cases to be heard.

“The unit is the first of its kind in Liberia, and through the unit women have access to justice and can now brave the storm to report cases of SGBV,” he says.

Out of 388 cases reported to the police in 2010, 148 were sent to court, where the unit played a significant role in helping with the prosecution, he says.

There is also a hotline number at the unit that women and others use to address cases of violence.

“Sometimes we receive three to five calls daily,” he says. “Police, health workers, community people, relatives of women who have been violated also use our hotline number.”

He says this unit has helped to empower Liberian women.

“Because of the SGBV crimes unit, women are becoming empowered and strengthened to fight SGBV,” he says.

The Women and Child Protection Section at the Liberia National Police is another effort by the state to end violence against women. In 2010, the section handled 2,544 cases – 388 of which were sexual and gender-based violence cases.

Ruth Kolleh, a police officer at the section, says it receives sexual and gender-based violence cases almost daily.

“We send cases to court, arrest perpetrators and make peace when necessary,” she says.

The Liberian government and the United Nations signed a joint program for 2008 to 2012 to help address widespread sexual and gender-based violence through various prevention and response measures. It aims to support Liberia’s National Gender-Based Violence Plan of Action to minimize gender-based violence by 30 percent by the end of this year and provide care and services to survivors.

The Ministry of Gender and Development also has a special unit dedicated to tackling sexual and gender-based violence, the Gender-Based Violence Task Force, which aims to coordinate the prevention of and response to violence, according to the LDHS.

The rape law has also been amended in recent years to increase the age of consent from 16 to 18 and the penalty for violating this, a second-degree felony, from seven to 10 years in prison, according to the LDHS. The penalty for gang rape and rape of a minor under 18, first-degree felonies, is life in prison.

For the 2008 to 2012 period, UNICEF and partner international organizations have been focusing on expanding prevention and response to violence in communities and schools, supporting government rehabilitation of victims and survivors through the establishment of safe homes, supporting the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in providing quality health services to survivors, and building the capacity of the judiciary and the police to handle cases.

Sirleaf has also prioritized education in order to empower women and end violence against them. Bernard says that women continue to face inequality in many sectors of Liberian society so they must continue to promote women’s rights.

“This is a sad trend that we need to work towards if women are to move forward,” Bernard says.