Reversing the tide of rising violence against women in Liberia

Liberia is grappling with rising incidences of sexual and gender-based violence. Children as young as six are being raped, with devastating impact on their health and wellbeing. Little Decontee from Nimba County was returning from the farm when a 22-year old male relative raped her. She is among a minority of survivors whose rapist was eventually prosecuted and sentenced to prison. Under Liberia’s Rape Law of 2005, statutory rape or sexual intercourse with minors is a non-bailable offence. However, a proposed amendment that is now with the House of Representatives, could make statutory rape a bailable offence. UN Women, together with partners is advocating for stronger laws and engaging community leaders to prevent violence against women and girls.

Date: Thursday, November 16, 2017

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon outside a safe home in Liberia’s Nimba County. Inside, six-year-old Decontee* looks outside the window, as she shares the harrowing story of her rape by a 22-year old male relative. More than a year has passed since the day it happened, but the medical and psychological effects continue to haunt little Decontee.

As result of the rape, Decontee developed obstetric fistula—a medical condition that has left her unable to control her urine and feces.

“I urinate and toilet on myself sometimes without even knowing, and my stomach still hurts,” she said, with tears in her eyes. Like many other survivors of violent rape, the condition is painful and stigmatized. Decontee’s condition has improved slightly with two surgeries, and she is scheduled for a third procedure soon.

In addition to the medical care, the safe home also provides counselors for Decontee and 15 other children, also rape survivors, to provide psychosocial support. Over time, the children have opened up to each other and to the caregivers at the safe home, and slowly overcoming the trauma. “When I get big, I want to be a medical doctor to take care of people,” says Decontee, her face breaking into a smile. 

“When we first took her in at the safe home, anyone could see how broken she was. She did not talk and was afraid tell us what was happening to her. But today we are seeing great changes. She feels confident to talk about what she is going through and is very active when they play,” explained Yaah Belleh Suah, Gender County Coordinator of Nimba County.

Yaah handled the transfer of little Decontee from the community to the safe home, which is supported by the Government of Liberia and the UN “Joint Programme on Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Harmful Traditional Practices”, led by UN Women. Decontee is among a minority of survivors whose rapist was eventually prosecuted and sentenced to 20 years of prison, because of the advocacy and support from community groups in her village.

Fourteen years since the end of the civil war, during which rape was used as a weapon of war, Liberia is grappling with high incidence of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls. According to Liberia’s Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection, from January to September 2017, a total of 892 sexual and gender-based violence cases were reported, of which 506 were rape cases, and 475 involved children.

“It’s horrifying to see our women and girls being raped and abused daily. The most disheartening part is that most of these cases are against children; something must be done to stop this,” says Liberia’s Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Julia Duncan-Cassell.

Laws that protect women’s rights serve as a deterrent against these crimes

Recently, Liberia has made some strides in passing legislations to protect women and girls, including through a domestic violence law that passed in August 2017. However, these hard-won gains cannot be taken for granted.

Under Liberia’s Rape Law of 2005, statutory rape or sexual intercourse with minors is a non-bailable offence. However, even as the country tackles the rising tide of sexual violence, a regressive amendment proposed by the Senate could make statutory rape a bailable offence. The amended version of the Rape Law has been presented to the House of Representatives for debate.

A number of women’s organizations, the Liberian Ministry of Gender Children and Social Protection and UN partners have called on the House of Representatives to reject the amendment.

“The current rape law is not just a deterrence against rape, it is the only guarantor that perpetrators will be held accountable for their actions and that survivors like Deconteen can get justice,” explained Dhogba Mabande, UN Women Programme Officer on Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Liberia.

“It is not likely that any proposed amendment of the law will happen before the end of President Sirleaf’s tenure and we are hopeful to engage with the new Liberian Legislature to reverse the decisions to change the law,” says Minister Cassell.

Beyond laws, community-based solutions are key

While laws that end impunity and serve as deterrent are important, breaking gender stereotypes and changing attitudes that condone violence against women and girls are equally critical. The joint programme led by UN Women and funded by Sweden is also engaging religious and community leaders and influencers to reject harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation and wife battering, in six of Liberia’s 15 counties.  

According to Mabande, the community-based approach is especially relevant: “We are working to help chiefs, pastors, imams and youth leaders understand how women and girls and their communities are affected by rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. Community leaders now have the opportunity to contribute their ideas on how these issues can be addressed and what role they can play.”

The programme works with community leaders in preventing and identifying sexual and gender-based violence and ensures referrals to relevant service providers. From May 2017 to now, more than 250 traditional and religious leaders have been trained on how to better respond to cases of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence in their communities. It has also improved the capacity of 173 police officers, prosecutors and health and social workers to respond to such cases. 

Note: *Not her real name. The name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.