Sexual violence projects could suffer post-UNMIL in Liberia

Humanitarian workers in Liberia worry that as the UN and NGOs scale down aid operations, the fight against sexual violence will suffer, given a limited capacity in national institutions to take it on.

The fight against sexual violence, led by the Ministry of Gender and Development, is part of a wider four-year national plan to implement Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security; the resolution was passed in 2000 but Liberia – where a 14-year war ended in 2003 – began implementing it just last year.

The action plan relies heavily on aid agencies and on international donors for funds, said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s coordinator for sexual and gender-based violence, Anna Stone. “But after the [presidential and legislative] elections next year many international NGOs, including the NRC, will scale down operations in Liberia.”

Many aid agencies, including NRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – also active in the fight against sexual violence – are gradually cutting their programmes in Liberia. And the post-election role of the UN mission (UNMIL), which has supported much of the government’s anti-sexual-violence programmes, is uncertain. []

“Agencies do move out and there is high turnover,” agreed Madhumita Sarkar, programme adviser at the joint UN-government SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) programme in the capital Monrovia. “That is a very big concern. This is the wrong time to withdraw – even though Liberia is not in a conflict state. Until now we’ve tried to work on building local capacities and we now need to continue that, and hand over projects to the government.”

“We will go back to zero if people just withdraw now,” she said.

Meanwhile the gender ministry is turning to donors to fund its programmes over the long term, aware that international support my wane; the ministry recently received funding from Italy and the United States, according to Deputy Gender and Development Minister Annette Kiawu.

Sexual violence consistently comes first or second (after armed robbery) in monthly crime statistics in Monrovia, with most victims being children, according to MSF.

Legal recourse is rarely an option for survivors, due to a lack of means as well as weak law enforcement, health NGOs in Liberia say. But most rapes are committed by family members and are not reported, according to the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in a 2009 study, “Nobody Gets Justice Here”

Attorneys often do not take it as seriously as armed robbery, as nothing is “stolen” in the attack, an aid worker told the NIIA.

NRC is trying to encourage women to report sexual crimes through a nationwide collective of women’s groups, called WISE Women; the organization promotes women’s rights and develops practical responses to sexual crimes, such as how to raise money for a medical exam.

Rita Kollie, 17, was the youngest member at a WISE Women meeting in Bong County in central Liberia, earlier this month.

“I was curious to find out what women’s rights are about. We are not taught about that at school,” she said. “Of course I am happy that we have a woman president, but we still don’t have women role models in Bong County.”

Whatever institutions lead the sexual violence fight, NIIA says, the approach must focus more on the political, cultural and economic roots of such crimes. NIIA says the current UN approach is too fragmented and shortsighted. Groups working to reduce sexual violence must harmonize statutory and traditional law, saying international actors do not have an adequate grasp of the latter, it points out.

The government has made some steps at the policy level: It now has a policy to promote women’s rights; it has strengthened rape and inheritance laws; and it has created a secretariat to implement Resolution 1325. But implementation still lags behind, UNMIL-government representative Sarkar told IRIN.

For instance, according to the NRC’s Stone, while Liberia is one of only two countries in the world that has specially assigned police units for protection of women and children, the units helped convict just five perpetrators in 2009.

NRC trains the units on how to address sexual crimes, but efforts are hampered by a lack of means and equipment, says NIIA.

Further, few trained officers want to leave Monrovia to work in rural areas – one of several problems impeding the fight in rural zones: poor roads, inadequate facilities, difficult access to some communities and lack of funds for counties, says the NRC.


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