It is lunch time at the Light Stream Academy School on Pagos Island in Monrovia. The stretch of land, with more than 4000 inhabitants, is completely cut off from the rest of the capital. It is surrounded by swamps and marshland. The only access routes are by foot. Dozens of children, wearing green and white uniforms play in the school yard. The girls jump and clap their hands to the sound of songs while the boys run and play with balls made out of whatever they can find.
During the 14 years of civil war in this West African country, education for everyone suffered. But the girls were the first to be taken out of school. Women and children bore the brunt of the violence. According to the United Nation Mission in Liberia 60% of girls and women claim they were sexually abused. Thousands were also left disabled, maimed and handicapped in a war known for the severing of limbs. Many, as young as 11-years-old, were forced into sex slavery. Mothers were forced to have sex with their children, while gang rape was rampant.
“Some men saw those beautiful girls and they desired them because they had the power, using arms to force them,” says Deborah T. Reeves, a teacher at the school. “For those girls at the time they had no choice,” she adds.
Miss Reeves sits on a dark brown desk chatting with a male instructor. She is busy marking tests during lunch break. She believes sexual abuse against women in Liberia is still a big problem.
“Gender-based violence is still on the rampage. If you walk in the streets you see it vividly. Even in the home it is there,” she says. “The reasons for which some of those things happen are because women are ashamed to voice it out. I am talking about these things because I am a woman and I have gone through some of these experiences. Looking at women they are always affected because they want to keep the family pride.”
Liberia is the first country in Africa to establish a national action plan to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325. The document, which was adopted by all member states unanimously in 2000, calls on states to include women in the peace-building process. Article 11 of the resolution emphasises the responsibility of all parties to put an end to impunity and to persecute those responsible for sexual gender-based violence.
Sexual abuse is the second most reported crime after armed robbery in Liberia. To address this situation and respond to UNSCR 1325, a special police unit, called the Women and Children Protection Section, was established in 2005.
“In the past there was no such place where women or a child could go to carry their complaints and get redress,” says Bennetta Holder Warner, who heads the unit. “After the war women and children, being the most vulnerable group, it was decided that this unit be established especially for their complaints.”
Part of UNSCR 1325 is about increasing the number of women in the security sector. It calls on countries to involve women in the protection of the state. In Liberia, the numbers speak for themselves. Five years ago, when Africa’s first democratically-elected female president took office, one in every 20 police was female. Today one in every five is a woman. Warner believes having more female officers in the police force has made it easier for women to report crimes.
“Gradually we have come to the place where women can openly come and complain. It is not a one day process,” says Warner. “But there are women who still do not want to be open and complain. But gradually they will continue to come up,” she adds.
Reporting the crime to the police is just one step of the journey. Sexual violence survivors then have to face a trial in court. And access to justice, especially for women in rural Liberia, is not easy to find.
“We found out people can’t even transport themselves to get to court,” says Deddeh Kwekwe, the Gender Based Violence Coordinator at the Ministry of Gender and Development. She says poverty is a huge barrier to justice. People just can’t afford to spend what little money they have on a long trial that may not end in a conviction. She says perpetrators often lie about their age because they know that there are no juvenile courts in those areas. Police do not have the money or the equipment to investigate cases. And she worries that, especially in the rural areas, men have total control over the legal system.
“I feel it is male dominated because most of these people are men. The judges, the lawyers and the jurors are all men,” she says.” They are looking at it from that point to say this is a man, why would I want to send this man to jail? He is a man like myself.”
Back at the school, the bell rings signalling the end of the lunch break. The students reluctantly go back to the class rooms. Miss Reeves is shouting instructions to keep the pupils in order. The teacher says the effect of sexual violence on families is devastating, something she has seen with her own eyes. The women are often shunned in the community. Husbands cannot always cope with the stigma that rape brings with it and often leave the home.
“It has psychological effects. Now that woman in the house is worried about what to do, and what the children will eat and all those kind of things,” she says.
Reeves stands before the big unfinished church that serves as three class rooms. She says the only way forward for the women of Liberia is to give them strength and confidence to speak out. And this is something that is happening more and more. Women are taking a stand against sexual violence. With a strong female President heading the country, there is a feeling among many that women are indeed equal to men.
“I see women empowerment as a great development. To be able to help women, to push women, to be able to bring out what is in them,” she says. “Women too can do something good,” she adds.