50.50: Analysis

Has Liberia’s ‘feminist’ president forgotten his promise to tackle rape?

Despite declaring rape a national emergency two years ago, George Weah has delivered little for victims

Dounard Bondo.jpg bettie.jpg
Dounard Bondo Bettie K. Johnson-Mbayo
7 June 2022, 12.10pm
Public awareness signage in Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa.
Jake Lyell / Alamy Stock Photo

Thousands of Liberians took to the streets in August 2020 to protest against a sharp rise in rape cases during the coronavirus lockdown. In response, president George Weah, who had previously proclaimed himself the “Liberian feminist in chief”, declared rape a national emergency. But, nearly two years later, many of the promises he made with that declaration appear forgotten.

Weah promised to appoint a special prosecutor for rape cases, set up a sex offenders’ register, and buy DNA-testing equipment to support the prosecutor’s work. Neither prosecutor nor register are in place, and the DNA equipment remains unused because no one has been trained to operate it.

The government has also failed to roll out courts specialising in sexual and gender-based violence trials (known as ‘criminal court E’) nationwide. The court is currently present in only three out of Liberia’s 16 counties.

This year, the West African country is – predictably – yet again driven to national outrage over sexual violence, as new and increasingly appalling cases make national news. In January, a 13-year-old girl died after she was reportedly raped. The following month, the national news was awash with reports of the alleged rape of a three-year-old.

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The government’s own data shows that sexual violence is endemic and rape is strikingly high. Latest figures state that, between January and September 2021, 997 cases of gender-based violence were reported, 67% of which were rapes.

Impunity for sexual crimes

Liberia also has a culture of impunity for rape, a legacy of the 14-year civil war (1989 to 2003). Between 61% and 77% of women and girls were raped during the war, according to the World Health Organization, but hardly anyone has been prosecuted for war crimes or sexual-based crimes. A 2020 report by the Independent National Commission on Human Rights stated that perpetrators of rape still enjoy a high degree of impunity.

The country struggles with challenging that impunity – on numerous levels. Its court system is too overworked and overcrowded to effectively enforce the law against rape. A United Nations report from 2016 stated that only 2% of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases reported in the previous year had resulted in a conviction in court.

Without functioning DNA machinery, prosecution is often based on “circumstantial evidence, which isn’t strong enough for the punishment of rape,” says Alvin Anderson, an attorney with the International Development Law Organization, a global intergovernmental organisation that promotes the rule of law.

Liberia’s gender minister Williametta Saydee–Tarr blamed the “slow pace at which cases are adjudicated” on the “lack of interest in demanding prosecution by the victims”. But the government’s failure to adequately fund the court system means that, for example, rape victims often have to pay for suspects to be transported to court.

Support for victims is also quite limited. Many do not have alternative accommodation separate from their abusers, who are often family members or known to them. In a country of four million, the government runs only two shelters for survivors of gender-based violence.

Victims who seek alternative justice in traditional communities usually see perpetrators get away with paying a small fee or compensation (providing a chicken, for example) as penance for rape. It is commonplace to see victims’ families asking for money as a form of redress, and perpetrators paying to avoid rape cases going to court.

Parliamentary hearings

Following increased media interest in rape cases, the Liberian parliament recently held hearings on the subject.

The women legislative caucus called for the DNA equipment to be made functional, to aid the investigations of rape cases. Suakoko Denis, a member of Liberia’s house of representatives, announced that her office had developed a “road map” on tackling rape.

But a previous road map, developed after a 2020 conference organised by the gender ministry, had little impact. It resulted in the creation of a national security task force on SGBV, but it faced logistical challenges, including a lack of vehicles.

Gender ministry spokesperson Eric Pervist told openDemocracy that this surge in public interest is proof of the government’s work in increasing awareness about rape. He also pointed to a recent allocation of the equivalent of £1.6m to beef up the fight against rape as evidence that Weah is walking the talk.

Regardless of the government’s promises and actions, rights campaigners such as Titus Pakalah, who helped organise the rape protests in 2020, believe tackling social norms is integral to combating rape: “In Liberia, people justify sexual violence by the way a girl dresses and acts. This should stop, because it is not a justification. We should build the kind of understanding in society that rape is always a crime.”

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