Archive for May 24th, 2008

The Mauritanian government says it is trying to increase prosecutions of rape cases but poorly trained judges working with murky, outdated legal texts make for slow progress.

The penal code, which is heavily based on Sharia or Islamic law, does not give a precise definition of sexual violence, said lawyer Bilal Ould Dik, so a judge’s personal point of view can strongly sway his conviction decision.

“Rape convictions are very rare [in Mauritania] because we are working with such unclear legal texts,” he told IRIN. As a result, “rapes often just end with a settlement between the family of the perpetrator and the victim”.

And, according to Dik, many judges automatically label sexual abuses as voluntary sexual relations occurring outside of marriage, known as the crime of ‘zina’ in Mauritania.

“For many judges, the rape victim is 50 percent responsible for what has happened to them,” said Zeinebou mint Taleb Moussam, chairwoman of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Mauritanian association for the health of mothers and children (AMSME).

While the number of reported rapes in the capital Nouakchott has tripled from 25 to 75 in the past year, according to Ahmed Seyfer head of child protection for UNICEF, next to none of the perpetrators were punished.

The Mauritanian authorities tried to build more robust legal protection for children who have been sexually assaulted, on top of the penal code, by passing the Juvenile code in 2005.

Because of that Mauritanian children theoretically enjoy some of the strongest legal protection than children in any of their West African neighbours, according to Frederica Riccardi, representative of NGO Terre des Hommes.

With the code came the setting up of a government child protection department and a special police force to protect minors, while judges, policemen and social workers have been sent on training courses in how to implement the law.

But despite this, few judges are well-versed in its texts or well enough trained to implement them and thus fall back on the weaker penal code said Moussam of AMSME.

Men in Mauritania can still become judges with nothing more than an informal Koranic education, while women are barred from becoming magistrates.

And the lack of training extends to social workers and psychologists who are able to help victims. “It is only NGOs that currently provide support to victims, but we need trained educators and psychologists who can also do the job,” Moussa told IRIN.

Organisations such as AMSME help victims through their proceedings with police to report assaults, and through administrative procedures for conviction, as well as giving them psychological support if they need it.

But the real challenge is convincing rape victims to visit them in the first place, according to Moussa.

For her, getting more sexual assault cases prosecuted requires changing attitudes to sexual assault across society as well as better training for magistrates and justice reform. Until then, “the topic of sexual assault will remain taboo in this country,” she said.

Uganda’s rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has recently gone on a new spree of abductions, sexual violence and looting, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) who are demanding swift international action.

The New York-based rights watchdog said in a statement that the LRA has carried out at least 100 abductions since February in the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and southern Sudan.

“Boys are made to act as porters or subjected to military training and girls are being used as sex slaves,” HRW said. “The LRA is also engaged in widespread pillaging of villages.”

Richard Dicker, international justice director at HRW, said in the statement that the LRA and its leader Joseph Kony “took advantage of the breathing room given to them and appear to be terrorising civilians yet again.”

Kony had been expected last month to ink a peace deal ending his movement’s deadly two-decade conflict with the Ugandan government but he failed to show up at the signing venue in southern Sudan.

In 2005, the Hague-based International Criminal Court issued warrants against Kony — whose group is notorious for raping and mutilating civilians, enlisting child soldiers and massacring thousands — and other top LRA leaders.

“Concerned governments and UN officials cannot sit by while the LRA goes on a criminal rampage, committing heinous abuses against children and other people,” Dicker said.

HRW called on the United Nations and international governments to “develop effective plans to execute the ICC arrest warrants.”

Kony has consistently demanded that the ICC warrants be lifted for him to sign a peace agreement. He reportedly backed out of last month’s peace signing due to concerns over the accountability process.

The LRA has said it would prefer a Uganda-based solution but HRW and other international observers have argued traditional rituals and Ugandan courts could not guarantee the highest standards of justice for the victims.

The conflict which started in 1986 has left tens of thousands dead and displaced an estimated two million people.

Of 600 rape victims recently interviewed by a Liberian non-governmental organisation, 90 percent of the women were found to be suffering from fistulas – a vaginal tear which results in loss of bladder control and social stigmatisation.

Aid workers say the statistic, provided by the Women of Liberia Peace Network (WOLPNET) from surveys conducted in April 2008, shows the horrifying prevalence of rape and of a phenomenon which Liberian medical officials say they are ill-equipped to respond to.

“These women are living with a serious scar and they are not getting access to treatment,” said Una Thompson, head of WOLPNET.

According to local health workers two types of fistula cases are prevalent in Liberia.

One is obstetric fistula, which is a vaginal tear resulting from prolonged obstructed labour.

A recent health survey showed that over average 994 women die for every 100,000 who give birth, a higher rate than was estimated during Liberia’s civil war. Doctors say the most common cause of death is vaginal haemorrhaging following childbirth.

Some health workers and officials say the spike is a result of improved data collecting. However others say fewer births are being attended by trained medical professionals, who diminished in numbers through the end of the 1990-2003 war, mainly because of migration.

The other common cause of fistula in Liberia is traumatic gynaecologic fistula that is a vaginal injury resulting from violent sexual assault or when objects are forcibly inserted into the vagina.

Violent crime and rape especially of children are common in Liberia, and police and justice systems have proven ineffectual at ending impunity for these crimes.

Dr. John Mulbah, head of the maternity centre of Liberia’s biggest referral hospital, the John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, said resources are limited to repair the damage.

“We have only five staff trained to conducted fistula treatment and all of them are based in Monrovia [the capital]”, he told IRIN.

“The unit only has 30 beds… our facility is overwhelmed with patients and some have to wait for a long time before being attended to.”

The unit was created in February 2007 after the UN sponsored a survey which identified 351 women suffering from fistulas in rural Liberia. The unit is 100 percent funded by international donors, not the government, Mulbah said.

“The drugs and supplies and the only vehicle conducting outreach in rural parts of the country were provided by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Treatment at the unit is free,” Mulbah said.

Liberia’s health minister, Walter Gwenigale, told IRIN that transporting fistula patients from rural areas to Monrovia for the treatment is a major constraint on broading treatment.

“Bringing those patients to Monrovia requires funds. We are aware that there are lots of fistula cases upcountry but the national health budget for Liberia is just US$11 million which is totally inadequate to deal with all health problems,” Gwenigale said.

Rape, a serious but frequently reported crime is becoming an issue of national concern as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) along side the Liberian Government is touring the nation carrying the message of rape aimed at changing if not eradicating the traditional perceptions of Liberians regarding the compromise of rape cases.

The issue of rape and the passage of the law together with its punishments against the perpetrators of such crime seem not to be working therefore, UNMIL and government have begin an anti-rape campaign, a process of explaining what the law says about crimes regardless of who the perpetrators may be especially perpetrators of rape.

Over the weekend, the organizers launched the ninth anti-rape campaign in Tubmanburg Bomi County where UNMIL Deputy Special Representative for Rule of Law, Henrietta Mensa-Bonsu and UNMIL HIV and AIDS Advisor Joyce Puta spoke about the seriousness of rape and urged the community to expose such crime.

According to the two UN officials, rape is not only a crime; it is an abomination to any society and a horrific crime that spoils lives and relationships. They said that even the Bible teaches that one must live in harmony with each other stressing that God approves sex not to dehumanize any one or for war purposes but for consent and enjoyment.

The two UN envoys noted that rape brings both the victims and perpetrators at risk for conception and sexually transmitted diseases that sometimes lead to abortion or a child might be conceived who is sure to suffer dejection from the mother.

They however tied the increase of such crime to traditional and cultural beliefs disclosing that it is being reported that rape is not only perpetrated on the girl child but it is now moving on to boys who are being sodomized daily but gradually.

They said that the four years of peace has yielded fruits in terms of the reduction of many crimes but rape still remains an issue that is shameful and which when perpetrated in a society, it lasts for a life time bringing about social stigma.

They said that it is about time that the laws therein are allowed to take its course when violated.

Liberia is said to be among fewer countries globally that have adopted a law pertaining to rape but a more proactive move needs to be taken to ensure that both survivors, perpetrators as well as those who might want to have it compromised feel its punishments.

It is said that most times it is close relatives who perpetrate most of the reported cases of rape or men who are known by the survivals.

It was reported recently that one of Liberia’s Press Union Feature Award winner, Bill Jarkloh was whisked off to prison for allegedly raping and subsequently sodomizing an eight year old girl, while on the same day, one Kelvin Boima Green, a security at the Central Bank of Liberia and nephew of former Central Bank Governor, Charles Green was charged with rape on a ten year old girl.

Also in the Congo Town community, one Alvin Teah, 32, was alleged of raping a girl who had gone in that vicinity to sell cold water. For defendant Green who is said to be in his early 50s, residents of his Paynesville community said that he is not known for flirting children but according to an inside source, he had earlier had a quarrel with his victim’s aunt, Massa Lessa who happens to be his betrothed wife.

The source said that he had earlier taken sufficient drugs in an apparent mood of waging revenge on Massa’s niece who she left at the house after she ran away due to death treats issued on her by Mr. Green.

The source did not dwell on the family quarrel but said that after the rape incidence, before being taken to prison, Mr. Green said that he does not remember at which time he perpetrated such act and his uncle, former governor Green, is now seeking permission for the conduct of a DNA test on the victim in order to prove the case

According to reports from the Jarkloh case, as he and his fiancée have been charged with rape and kidnapping respectfully, community dwellers are complaining that the police together with the save home where the child was placed by the accused are trying to influence the child to say that she was used into accusing Jarkloh as they are contending that the case has to come from the police end before a charge is placed on the accused by the court.

Meanwhile, Bill, a renowned Liberian journalist, was a one- time reporter of the Inquirer Newspaper, editor of the oldest Liberian newspaper, The News Newspaper where he captured the Press Union of Liberia Feature Writer Award. He is a present consultant at the Vision Newspaper and the communication officer at the Ghanaian Embassy in Monrovia.

As for Bomi County, it is reported that since 2008, none of its 47 cases of rape has been won by the state lawyers while all of its reported 67 cases of domestic violence has not been taken to court due to survivals’ appeal to have them settled by family means.

Meanwhile, seven of the rape cases perpetrated in the county is said to be on the docket for this May term of court.

The counties that the UNMIL Anti-rape Campaign has already been launched in are Nimba, Lofa, Bong, Grand Bassa, Grand Gedeh, Sinoe, Maryland, Margibi, and Bomi. Meanwhile, the campaign moves on to Grand Cape Mount this weekend.