MONROVIA – It was a year ago that President George Weah declared rape a national emergency. His announcement came in response to a crime that shocked the nation: a fifteen-year-old boy had raped a three-year-old girl, using a razor blade to commit the crime.
By Mae Azango with New Narratives
That followed years of cries by women activists for governments to act on a rape epidemic that had been largely borne by girls under 18. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had made efforts to address the scourge but it had continued unbated.
Now President Weah promised to set up a special committee to look into sexual and gender-based crimes. He promised a special prosecutor to handle rape cases, a national sex offender registry, and a national security task force to handle sexual and gender-based violence. The president said he had allocated $US2m in emergency funding to the problem.
But a year on, nothing has been heard of the committee or government plans to address the problem. Activists are bitterly disappointed.
“You have a government that not only claims to be led by a Feminist-in-Chief and made commitments to take emergency action on rape, and somehow nothing much shifts beyond public statements,” said Lakshmi Moore, former Director of Action Aid Liberia, and an expert in gender issues.
Tracking what happened to the promises has not been easy. The money paid for a machine to identify DNA attackers left on the bodies of their victims. It has arrived at John F. Kennedy Medical Center but Dr. Jerry Browne, the Hospital Administrator, told Front Page Africa it is not yet in use.
The rest of the $US2m has gone to the Ministry of Gender for the establishment of the Taskforce, according to President Weah’s Deputy Press Secretary Smith Toby. But when Front Page asked the Gender Ministry press officer Webster Cassell whether the taskforce had been established he refused to comment, directing this reporter to file a Freedom of Information request in order to receive the information. (FOI requests are typically reserved for government documents, not for information about a commitment made publicly by the president.)
The FOI request was filed more than two weeks ago. The Minister has yet to address the request according to Mr. Cassell.
“FOI usually takes thirty days according to the statutory law, therefore we are still operating in the confines of the laws, because it is not yet one month,” said Mr. Cassell. “Please, bear with us, I promise the Minister will get to it before the one month elapses.”
Meanwhile other members of the administration have deflected responsibility for the crisis from government to parents. At a recent colloquium on SGBV Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor said the crisis needs to be solved by Liberians.
“If SGBV is not resolved in the homes, the government cannot do anything about it,” the Vice President told the audience. “Therefore, all of us must get engaged, especially mothers.”
She had particularly harsh and surprising words for mothers.
“As a mother, it is your responsibility to protect your children against all forms of abuse, but if you are not and sending them out to get sexually involved with men for money, then you are the problem,” the Vice President said. “If you need money, go and sell yourself for money, as the old people used to do, but do not allow your daughters to trade sex for money.”
At the time of the president’s announcement women’s rights activists applauded his actions. Having the president, a man, condemn violence against women, would have a powerful deterrent effect, they said. Indeed, it seems the administration may have hoped the president’s words alone would be enough to stop the violence.
Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection claimed on a recent national radio program that SGBV cases had fallen in the period January to June 2021 during which the ministry said there had been a little over 600 cases reported across the country. But the government’s own data showed no decrease. For the same period a year earlier nearly the same number was reported by the Ministry of Justice SGBV Unit – 605 cases. Out of that number 450 were statutory rape cases (usually on victims too young to give legal consent), 100 were rape cases, 55 were gang rape cases and ten were cases of sodomy.
Women’s right groups were quick to reject the ministry’s most recent figure. “I am surprised by this statistic given by the Ministry because my coordinator in Lofa has a bigger number than what the Ministry has given,” said Tamba Johnson, National Coordinator of the rights group He for She Liberia. “We have over seven hundred SGBV cases, of which over 500 of that number are rape cases while two hundred cases are sodomy and gang rape cases. So before the Ministry comes up with such number, it should liaise with our county coordinators to have the correct data.”
Women rights advocates are angry with the government’s failure to carry through the commitments.
“I think the lack of commitment towards recognizing the crisis of SGBV, and its impact on women, is not only a moral failure but also historical neglect given society’s patriarchal attitude towards women and girls including those experiencing intersecting barriers such as disability, gender orientation, and ethnicity,” Moore said. “So every day women and girls get up in Liberia and have to deal with real and personal dangers to their lives and futures. Somehow we also expect the very same women and girls to actively contribute to the development of Liberia despite the real and present danger they face each day in homes, in schools, at work and in public places.”
According to an August 2020 report by the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), perpetrators of rape still enjoy a high degree of impunity. Very few reported cases result in conviction. The report blamed the low level of accountability for rape on bureaucratic obstacles that restrict the number of cases that can be heard in each judicial term, and institutional weaknesses by specialized agencies of government tasked with implementing anti-SGBV policies.
INCHR also discovered that during the Covid-19 lockdown, some perpetrators used the opportunity to prey on vulnerable people.
An alarming number of rape cases continue to report to so-called “one stop centers” where victims receive medical care according to Satta Sheriff, a child rights activist. The majority of cases that seek the medical help of the clinic do not go on to press formal charges with the police against their attackers.
Ms. Sheriff said when she visited the centers recently she found everything at a standstill.
“It is more than a year since rape was declared a national emergency, but I am afraid that much has not been done from what I saw at the one stop centers,”Ms. Sheriff said. “The high number in rape cases shows that regardless of the president’s declaration, rape still seems to be on the increase.”
True to Ms. Sheriff’s words, Front Page Africa also found that many of the one stop centers responsible for treating and reporting rape cases are overwhelmed with cases since the pandemic.
“Since the COVID 19, we have been receiving many cases. I say this because a month ago, we received 43 rape cases of girls less than 18 years of age. Because of the high number, we are running out of the 72 hours testing kit to determine if a person was raped or to know if the victim contracted AIDs or any other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), which is a major challenge,” said Florence Davies, a volunteer psychosocial counselor at one stop center, Hope for Women clinic in Paynesville.
Geraldine Domgbo, working at the Redemption Hospital in Bushrod Island, said they have also been receiving many rape cases since the pandemic.
“Just imagine from July 1st to the 25th, we had over 19 rape cases but immediately after the July 26 Independence Day celebration, the cases increased because many underage girls were raped by men under the influence of alcohol. We are now in the first week of August, we already have 22 cases, so before September and October, we will have double or triple that number,” said Nurse Domgbo.
On the other end of the scale Esther Samah, of Star of the Sea clinic in West Point, run by the Catholic Church of Liberia, said they hardly get any rape cases because there is a lack of awareness.
“People are not reporting rape cases to a populated place like West Point because of the lack of awareness. Many people do not know they have to bring rape victims to the one stop center to get tested and treated, so awareness is very important,” said Nurse Samah.
The President has yet to mention any of the promises he made a year ago. As the pandemic rages on and cases increase, health workers and counselors on the frontlines of the rape crisis say women and girls’ lives are being destroyed and they cannot wait another day.
This story was a collaboration with FrontPage Africa as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.