Men put down their guns 10 years ago here in Liberia, yet violence is still a regular and terrifying feature of women’s lives. Doctors report having treated babies who were raped, men are impregnating girls as young as 12 and any public conversation about the prevalence of female genital mutilation (practiced by the majority of the 16 tribes in Liberia) is taboo. This week, the story that repeatedly comes up is about a young girl was who so brutally raped by her foster brother that she bled to death.
This is life for women and girls in “post-conflict” Liberia.
Women, both young and old, are so habituated to degrading sexual violence that for many—especially from the rural areas—it comes as a revelation that reproduction and rights are two words that can be combined.
“The problem in Liberia is that any man can insult any woman at any time—and no one will defend that woman because that is just the way it is,” says Dr. Patricia Jabbah Wesley, a Liberian academic and writer who researches violence against women and girls.
Liberia’s quietly determined Chief Prosecutor for the Sexual Crimes and Gender-Based Violence Unit of the Ministry of Justice, Felicia Coleman, noted that until only a few years ago women “were still considered chattel in Liberia”. Felicia is one of the courageous women in Liberia who is taking up the challenge to end rape and gender-based violence. In doing so, she is challenging cultural norms and wrestling with the unresolved demons of war.
The long civil war produced a whole generation of men who were armed and drugged, and forced to rape the women of all ages—including their former teachers and those considered “elders” in the community. These ex-child now soldiers live among the same people they once terrorized, and have received little in the way of counseling and rehabilitation.
Poverty adds another layer of complexity to ending sexual violence. Families with limited resources will often prioritize educating boys over girls. Girls who do make it to high school often rely on “sugar daddies” – older men, including teachers, who will pay their fees or give good grades in exchange for sexual favors. Younger girls often have to walk a long way to get potable water for the family, making them vulnerable to sexual assaults. And community police can’t get out to investigate sexual crimes because they lack even basic transportation like a motorcycle.
Coleman and her staff are not only struggling to get rape cases to court but also spend a great deal of time “out in the community” educating Liberians on the legal rights of women. She is the first to admit that—in the absence of any major judicial reform—the courts are delivering very little justice to Liberian women. And she worries that there is not enough support for survivors.
Some Liberian women are taking justice into their own hands.
In Totota, a small town located about two hours outside of Monrovia, women built and run a “peace hut”—an alternative to the traditional, community-based justice that is meted out in “palava huts”. Liberian Nobel Peace laureate Leymah Gbowee says these women-led peace huts are springing up in other communities in Liberia, and are a grassroots effort to “deconstruct patriarchy”.
“With the palava huts, it was the men on the inside and the women on the outside. With the peace huts, women are on the inside—and willing to work alongside men.”
Women in Totota work closely with community police, sometimes even going as far as chasing down evidence in rape cases. The peace huts were born during the civil war, when women realized that unless they did something to mobilize the collective strength of women in communities—the men would just keep killing each other and raping the women.
The day we visited the peace hut in Totota, we were greeted by dozens of women chanting proudly “women are WOMEN”. They wore t-shirts with messages like “Beating your wife is everyone’s concern” and “Peace, yes! RAPE NEVER AGAIN”. With the men standing on the sidelines, the women leaders of the community proudly described to us how they work closely with community police to nab local rapists and collect enough evidence to take cases to court.
They asked us to tell Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf that they want rape cases fast-tracked in the court system, and they want local police to be provided with vehicles so they can properly investigate crimes involving sexual violence. Most of all, they want President Sirleaf to come and see their hard work.
The next day we visited President Sirleaf, who promised to visit the women of Totota. It’s a small token of respect that’s long overdue for the extraordinary and determined women of Totota.