Rates of sexual violence in post-war Liberia are still “extremely high” according to a recently published report by UK-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
Rape remains one of the most frequently reported crimes in Liberia, according to Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development, and the incidence of sexual violence against women in Liberia is among the highest in the world.
“It’s true we are out of conflict, but we still have this issue of rape as a big problem here,” said Rosana Schaack, the founder of THINK (Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness) Liberia, which works to help former girl soldiers, war wives and survivors of rape and domestic violence readjust to post-conflict life. “Even though we’ve had 10 years of peace, some of these things drag on longer than 10 years.”
While sexual violence against women is down from a high of 77 percent during wartime, it remains a major problem, and has left many women with lasting physical, psychological, economic and social problems, including HIV infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and infertility, according to the report The Fallout of Rape as a Weapon of War.
Survey data from 2013 found that 19-26 percent of women and girls have reported having been raped by a stranger, and that 70-73 percent of married women have been sexually assaulted by their husbands, according to Nicola Jones, a research fellow at the ODI.
“I was gang raped [three years ago] by two unknown men on my way home from school,” said 17-year-old Musu Tolbert. “They ran behind me and took me in the bush and had me multiple times… I still feel physical pain in my stomach... Whenever I think about that moment, it scares me and sometimes I want to take away my life,” she said.
Many rape survivors are shunned by their family and may never marry. Others are forced to marry their rapist, as they are considered “damaged goods”.
“I am like a laughing stock in my community,” said 35-year-old Mary Togba, who moved to a new village after being raped. “Everywhere I went, people laughed and gossiped about me… I no longer have any friends in my community. Everybody refers to me as the “Rape Woman”.
ODI says among the reasons rape is so prevalent in Liberia is a phenomenon known as “hyper masculinity”, the normalization of rape and a failure to prosecute perpetrators.
“Hyper masculinity is really trying to capture the idea of men’s anger and frustration at the roles they find themselves in after the war,” Jones said, explaining that during the war, women were the ones who often ended up taking on the role of the breadwinner. Men now find themselves trying to “cling to their social relevance” in a country with extremely high rates of unemployment. Many men also found it hard to adjust to peacetime life, after male aggression and rape were considered the norm for so long.
“They are really struggling to cope with these changes in women’s roles…. and it’s leading to very high rates of sexual and gender-based violence,” Jones said.
A high rate of substance abuse is also contributing to the problem, as is ongoing traumatization among men who themselves were sexually abused during the war. Most of these men have never received counselling or support following these incidents, and have now fallen into a cycle of sexual violence as perpetrators. Others suffer from untreated mental illnesses.
None of these explanations, however, are an excuse for rape, stressed activists.
“Survivors don’t forget,” said Janice Cooper, head of the Carter Centre Liberia, which trains healthcare workers to provide mental health services to survivors of sexual violence, and works with the government to implement better policy and practices surrounding gender-based violence.
“We can try to help them to become full again, help them through therapy and through medical support, to get their lives back… but this [culture of rape] cannot continue,” Cooper said.
Low prosecution rates
Prosecution rates also need to improve to act as a deterrent. While President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has put some new rape laws into place and set up special rape courts since she took office, the prosecution rates remain extremely low.
Jones said the number of rape cases brought to court last year was “in the single digits”.
Many times, perpetrators are let go due to lack of evidence, as it is often a child’s word against an adult’s. Other times, the cases are not reported until well after the fact and it is too late to gather physical evidence. The police - still infamous for their high levels of corruption - can be paid off to “botch” investigations.
Victims are also often persuaded to “settle” cases outside of the courtroom.
“Culturally, people don’t want to have a bad relationship within families or communities and since a lot of those cases of sexual violence happen within families or by neighbours, people don’t want to create bad tensions, so they never go to court,” Schaack said.
To help reduce the chance that a case is compromised, the Carter Centre has begun setting up “one-stop shops” where a woman can be examined, file a police report and receive counselling, all during the same visit.
But because there is currently no mandated rape-reporting system in Liberia, it is up to the victim - not her doctor, not a police officer, not a family member, not a social worker - to report the case.
“The easy part is to get them to tell their story and talk about it,” Cooper said. “The harder part is to get them to agree and report it.”
Ending rape culture is possible
Many county hospitals in Liberia now have a gender-based violence unit where women can get medical support, but these units remain small and funding is low. There is often only one counsellor and victims usually only come for one or two visits.
“For extreme cases, particularly for children who have been raped, a couple of counselling sessions - while it’s certainly going to help - it’s just not adequate,” Jones said. “So I think there’s a really high level of underfunding to try and tackle individual-based trauma, as well as a big gap in coverage at the community level.”
Rebuilding Liberia's justice and health systems could take years, according to ODI, and will require much more investment from the international community.
While mass radio awareness campaigns have made people aware of the problems surrounding rape and sexual and gender-based violence, there needs to be more and larger-scale initiatives to get men and women to come together and talk about their different war and post-war experiences and work through them, in order to move forward.
This could also help to reduce some of the stigma attached to rape and get people to understand that rape is not the fault of the victim.
Researchers at ODI say that programmes also need to be set up to help men adjust to their new roles in post-war society. Giving better skills-training to men so that they can find work, as well as improving their access to micro-credit could reduce their feelings of inadequacy that are leading to “hyper masculinity”.
Experts say that while none of this will be easy and that it will take time to change the attitudes and social norms that underpin Liberia's high rate of sexual violence, ending this culture of rape is possible.
“If there are a lot more resources, if the resource commitment is for the long term, if we work at multiple levels and with boys, girls, men, women, religious leaders - everyone - to try and change the attitude that rape is something that is normal and acceptable, and almost seen as an inevitable evil at the moment, and that instead it is a violation of girls’ and women’s’ rights,” Jones said, “then, yes, I would say I am cautiously optimistic that we will see a change.”
Liberia went through civil wars from 1989 to 1996 and from 1999 to 2003.