The Fight Against Rape a Brutal Wait in Liberia

From Monrovia’s highest hill, the long sliver of Atlantic Ocean shoreline at the mouth of the Mesurado River, with its aqua blue waves, golden sand and wooden fishing boats, looks like paradise. But this is West Point; one of Monrovia’s most impoverished and polluted slums, and it is not paradise.

It is a world where justice is slow to react to the rapes and abuse of women and children. And it is here that women have been left with no choice but to come together and fight for their most basic of human rights – their safety.

“We decided to organise the women, because the men were beating on the women too much, they were raping the children plenty.”

These are the words of Diana Mah, an organiser with the West Point Women’s Action Group. “So we were going to march out there and minimise what was going on.”

Here in Liberia the human cost of the war, which ended in 2003, is grim. The International Crises Group estimates 250,000 Liberians lost their lives and in a disturbing survey of six counties by the World Health Organisation, almost 75 percent of the female respondents claimed to have been raped.

West Point is a microcosm of this.

Ghettoized into a warren of narrow dirt roads and dilapidated tin shacks, the misery of the estimated 65,000 residents is compounded by torrential rains, extreme lack of clean water and sanitation, outbreaks of cholera, malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis, and the ever-present threat of violence, especially rape.

West Point Women’s Action Group was founded in 2005 after the cases of child and adult rape become too much to ignore.

“People said women had no rights, and men had rights because they were the head of the household, so they could do anything.” But after a girl was raped one day, Mah says, “the parents decided to talk about it. The women started saying, our children are being used and abused and we have to do something!”

So the women marched to the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia and the Gender Ministry seeking justice for them and their children. “That’s how it started. Now, when something happens to women, we take up the case. When they (criminals) hurt someone, rape someone, we take (the survivors) to hospital and then we go to court,” Mah says.

Nelly Cooper, director of the West Point Women’s Action Group, describes a few challenges when they are tipped off about rape victims. “Some people don’t report (rape) because of the shame, and take the child to the side to keep silent. So when we go in, and they say: ‘Oh no, nothing happened here’.”

“We get little kids like that. If the parent is not willing to take a kid, you cannot take a kid. Sometimes they will even take the child away to a new destination. So that makes our life difficult.”

Even more difficult is when a rapist pays the family of the victim not to report him. “Some of the (rapists), when they rape the children, they give the parents money for their child. So the family will take the money, and cover the perpetrator. Most of the time, we have to chase the perpetrator, find them and jail them.”

At the group’s small centre, local female residents strategise ways to raise awareness of gender-based violence in the whitewashed room downstairs, other women painstakingly hand weave brightly coloured ‘Lapa’ cloth to sell. This money, along with weekly member donations, just covers their shoestring budget for basic costs like transport.

When Liberia’s civil war broke out in 1989, Mah and Cooper, like many of West Point’s women, were caught in the crossfire of shelling between rebel-held Bushrod Island, and government forces in the city. The civilians trapped in the beachside slum were starving, and women risked their lives running across the bridge under fire to bring food home.

Liberia’s communities have been traumatised by war and the remaining violent mindset fosters an environment where gender-based violence continues at alarming rates. Particularly disturbing is the prevalence of sex crimes against children.

“Most of the cases we receive are children,” says Oretha Brooks, a counsellor at Duport Road’s Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) clinic across town in Paynesville. The majority of victims visit just after being raped, for pregnancy and STI advice, including HIV, and treatment, trauma counselling, and the paperwork necessary to make a police complaint.

In the clinic’s cosy waiting room, young teenage girls sit silently on patterned couches strewn with stuffed animals and books, uncomfortably avoiding eye contact as they wait their turn for counselling. “Most of these girls are very, very traumatised,” Brooks says.

The Duport Road SGVB clinic’s rape statistics are shocking. Results from the first six months of the year show nearly 700 women and children were admitted as victims of sexual assault. The majority (about 40 percent) were girls between 13 and 18 years old, followed closely by girls aged between 5 and 12. A staggering seventy-seven were under the age of five.

“I can’t tell you the exact number of babies we received last month – about three or four babies. Sometimes the parents set their babies down and come back and they are bleeding,” says Brooks, referring to the baby rape cases.

The clinic recorded over 100 gang rapes during the six-month period, but single perpetrators committed the vast majority of rapes, and most of them knew their victims.

“If the victim is raped by a family member, neighbour, or someone they know, and if they always see that person, they are always traumatised,” she says.

“We had a patient who was raped by her auntie’s husband. And they lived in the same house… The child was eight years old and I think he (the rapist) was about 45 to 50 years old… He was arrested and we took the child to a safe house, because when she was at home, the alleged perpetrator’s relatives always came by and threatened her.”

But while the scale of sexual crime in Liberia is tremendous, navigating the country’s slow moving and under resourced judicial system, buckling under a heavy caseload and enormous pre-trial prison population, is a major obstacle to bringing sexual predators to trial.

Kulah Borabor, a gender-based violence counsellor in West Point, sighs. “The lawyers will say a case is scheduled for that day, but when you go it’s not. So you keep going, keep going, or the judge will postpone it and you will find the case going into the next year.” Borabor adds, “When we carry the rape victim to court, they go through a lot and see the perpetrator. Sometimes they get tired by the delay of justice.”

Although a revised, broadened rape law was signed on the heels of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inauguration in January 2006, prosecution of sex crimes commonly takes a back seat to murder trials, and lawyers and judges are found to be unfamiliar with the new legislation.

Sirleaf has listened closely to advocates of fast-track courts that deal exclusively with crimes of sexual violence. Earlier this year, the government established a special prosecutor’s SGVB Unit, as well as an exclusive judicial court to hear the backlog of sex crime cases in the capitol’s Montserrado County. The goal is to replicate the pilot project after an 18-month trial period, in Liberia’s other counties.

Based on the South African model, the court and SGBV Unit are fully acquainted with the new rape legislation and have the infrastructure, equipment and trained staff to handle sensitive cases. The trials are held on-camera, so the victim does not have to see the perpetrator.

The court’s second session opened last week with two cases on the docket; the gang rape of a five-year-old, and rape of a teenager. The court’s prosecution during the first session succeeded in sentencing the rapist to the heaviest penalty possible for a sex crime, life imprisonment.

Syed Sadiq, the UN Population Fund’s gender-based violence Advisor, admits the court has gotten off to a slow start. “The court was recently established, and all the courts in the jurisdiction had to transfer the files to the court… Now the process has been streamlined and the system is in place so hopefully things can move on. It also takes time to get public defenders on board.”

There are currently 140 prisoners accused of rape awaiting trial at the Monrovia Central Prison.

“There needs to be a solution,” says Chief Prosecutor Felicia Coleman. “There is a good number of cases on the docket, and a good number of people languishing in jail on a daily basis, and we are just looking at Montserrado County.”

The West Point Women’s Action Group have yet to have a case heard at the new court, but complain about the old system. “The court has been very slow, sighs Diana Mah. “The lawyers will say a case is scheduled for that day, but when you go its not. So you keep going, or the judge will postpone it and you will find the case going into the next year… That’s why we have been advocating for a fast track court.”

With the numbers of victims the women of West Point and Duport Clinic road face on a daily basis, the SGBV court’s biggest challenge is to catch up and earn up to its potential as a ‘fast track’ court.

But Brooks is optimistic: “Before the war people were not really reporting rape, because of the stigma and they didn’t really know the side effects,” she says. “Now they are becoming educated, and they know why they have to come to the hospital, to see a counsellor to reassure them and to help them. And they know that rape is a crime.”

%d bloggers like this: