History of Violence: Struggling with the Legacy of Rape in Liberia

Despite the International Criminal Court's recent conviction of former President Charles Taylor on charges of war crimes and abetting rape (among other horrors) in Sierra Leone, his country, Liberia, still wrestles with a brutal legacy of abuse, neglect and silence

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On a sticky hot Liberian Saturday afternoon, doll-faced Caroline, 15, sat across a poorly lit room while a much younger girl talked. When Caroline’s turn to speak arrived, her eyes picked a spot on the wall. They only moved when she finished speaking and began to cry. In halting tones, Caroline and the younger girl, 5-year-old Joetta, told of the rapes each had recently suffered. “It’s bad,” said the 5-year-old, “I saw blood.” She was living in a secret shelter for protection. (Their full names have been withheld for that reason.) For Caroline the nightmare was not over: she was now six months pregnant.

Caroline’s and Joetta’s ages fit an alarming and shifting pattern among rape victims in the African nation. While rape was endemic during Liberia’s long civil war, nine years since the end of the violence children now make up the bulk of the victims. Nine out of every 10 rape victims treated by Doctors Without Borders in that country in 2011 were under 18 years old. Almost half of those were under the age of 12. Roughly 1 in 10 victims was a child under 4 years old.

“It’s insane. What reason would someone give for raping an 8-month-old baby? Eight months!” said Andrew Tehmeh, Liberia’s Deputy Gender and Development Minister.

(MORE: Warlord Convicted: Liberia’s Charles Taylor Found Guilty of War Crimes)

Rape was a hallmark of Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 with the exile of President Charles Taylor, who was recently convicted of war crimes in Sierra Leone by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Rape was a weapon used to infuse terror and humiliate whole communities. It was also used to break the spirit of boy soldiers who were sometimes forced to rape their own mothers, sisters and grandmothers as part of their initiation. Estimates vary, with some accounts claiming between 60% and 90% of all Liberian women were raped during the conflict.

Nine years on, rape continues to be rife. A total of 1,475 rape cases were officially reported in 2011, according to a recent gender-based violence statistics report prepared by the Norwegian Refugee Council. But most rapes, many sources there said, go unreported.

The high level of abuse of children marks a troubling change in the nature of the violence, experts said. During the war men systematically raped women who were unknown to them. Now most of the perpetrators — 85% according to Doctors Without Borders — know the victim first hand.

“Very rarely they [the rapists] are strangers. They are people close to the victim. They live next door, or right in the house,” said Felicia Coleman, chief prosecutor of the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Unit in the Liberian Ministry of Justice. Caroline’s rapist was his community’s pastor. Joetta’s was a 16-year-old neighbor. Other girls interviewed for this story had been raped by a biological father, a priest, a sister’s boyfriend and a next-door acquaintance.

Violence against women has deep roots in Liberia. Even before the civil conflict that scarred the West African nation of over 3.5 million people, society was profoundly unequal. Women were considered the property of men and violence was tolerated as a man’s right. Some adherents of an indigenous religion, known as Poro, claimed rape of virgins or babies would lead to employment or good luck.

(PHOTOS: Living with the Past in Liberia)

Then came war. From 1989 to 2003, warlord Charles Taylor led one of the world’s most brutal armies. Many of his soldiers were children. Taylor’s forces, and those who sprung up to oppose him, killed as many as 250,000 people and raped up to three-fourths of Liberian women. Once one of the most prosperous countries in the region, Liberia fell back into the dark ages. All infrastructure was destroyed. Children went for more than a decade without education. Societal pressure forced men to abandon raped wives, creating a legion of destitute women and children and destroying any sense of family unity.

“Violence became a way of life,” explained Madhumita Sarkar, adviser at the joint U.N.-government sexual and gender-based violence program in Liberia.

One of the worse legacies of the war was a sense of impunity for rape that the postwar judicial system has done little to dispel. Many rapists believe that their actions will have no consequences.

“When we cannot use the successful prosecution as a means of deterrence, then people continue to do it,” said chief prosecutor Coleman. Her unit is one of several initiatives set up by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — who became the first female elected head of state in Africa in 2005 — to stop rape. Current Liberian antirape measures are some of the toughest in the region.

Johnson Sirleaf’s first act in office was to make rape illegal (before then only gang rape was outlawed). Child and gang rape now have a penalty of life in prison. She also created the sexual-violence prosecution unit and opened protection units for women and children in police stations. Since late 2008 Liberia also has a court called Criminal Court E, tasked solely with trying rape cases. It is led by a female judge and allows victims to testify by closed-circuit television to protect their anonymity.

But legal mechanisms have not been enough to conquer the problem. The judicial system is plagued by poor resources, ineptitude and rampant corruption. Police officers don’t know how to collect evidence from a rape scene, for instance, according to Sarkar, the U.N.official.

(MORE: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia Going for Another Term)

The strong stigma attached to rape in Liberia also stops many families from reporting cases. They fear their daughter will be ostracized and unable to find a husband. Men are usually breadwinners, and life for an unmarried woman can be bleak. Girls often blame themselves for dressing provocatively and inviting rapes. Many families take money from the accused rather than press charges. Cash has a powerful appeal in a society where more than 60% of inhabitants live on less than a dollar a day.

When the perpetrator is a family member, mothers face a heartbreaking decision, says Coleman. “If a stepfather rapes an 11-year-old, it’s difficult for the mother to report it because the father is a breadwinner.”

That’s what happened to Princess. The 14-year-old sits in the Duport Road Clinic where she was treated after her sister’s boyfriend raped her about 10 days earlier. She now lives in a safe house, but she returned today to visit staff there. Princess’s sister was pregnant with her boyfriend’s baby when he raped Princess. They all lived in the same house together with Princess’s grandparents. When the rape occurred, neither her sister nor her grandmother wanted to see the man imprisoned. They feared for the welfare of the rapist’s mother, an older lady who was very ill, and neither the sister nor the mother could afford to lose the man’s income.

“I should forgive him because nobody is there to support my sister,” Princess said. “And I forgive him.”

Monrovia Central Prison sits in the heart of downtown Monrovia, the Liberian capital. Across the external barbwire walls and an internal gate guarded by security officers, there is an esplanade populated by white buildings. Black arms hang through the tall grilled windows in the buildings’ facades. Orange jumpsuits lie in the sun, drying. Some detainees carry buckets of water to a building called Block F, while others sing a gospel song.

Sando Kai, 26, and Alfred Wood, 60, are there in a sparely furnished room used by lawyers and jurors. Both are sentenced to life in prison for rape.

Kai was found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl. Wearing a purple woolen hat with glitter and a military green sleeveless T-shirt under the orange jumpsuit, he claimed in a highly contradictory speech that he was innocent.

Rapists never admit to their crime, according to prosecutors. But when asked why men rape women, he said, “Sometimes some men don’t have the guts to say, Oh, I love you, but they force her.”

(MORE: Rebuilding Liberia)

Wood, accused of statutory rape, dried sweat on his forehead with a small towel he wrapped around his hand. He said he slept with a teenage prostitute, but it wasn’t rape. He claimed the girl said she was 16.

“In Liberia at 16 you’re a complete woman. It was not rape, it was a contract,” he said. “We do not force them, the girls give themselves to you.”

He said he was married with five children, three of whom were in the U.S. He spoke lovingly about his daughters. “Men gotta be superior to women,” he said, “because we take care of them.”

Rape has become so common in Liberia ordinary men joke openly about it. Tekar J. Bundor, the medical supervisor of the two Doctors Without Borders rape clinics in Monrovia, told of traveling in a car with three men who were joking about overpowering women in front of her. “Oh, people come and say, ‘I am raping,’” Bundor recalled one of the men as saying. The other two laughed approvingly.

“Some of the men feel that they are not doing anything wrong,” Bundor said. “But how you would not know that having sex with a 12-year-old child is wrong?”

Coleman is one of many who say things are improving but it will take a long time before rape is stopped. “After the war, it continues,” she said. “You have to rehabilitate and detraumatize people.” Both victims and perpetrators.

Back in the rundown, third-floor office of a nonprofit called Women’s Aid Inc., Caroline, the 15-year-old, was wearing a green knee-length dress dotted with small black flowers. It was loose enough to disguise her protruding belly.

“My Pa [father] said I should keep it,” she said referring to the baby she was carrying, a product of the rape. “I can’t feel fine.”

Over a year before, she had moved in with her community’s pastor and his family. Her own family was poor, so when the pastor suggested she move in with them to take care of their babies, her parents agreed. The pastor and his wife would send Caroline to school and feed her, in exchange for babysitting.

Caroline used to console the babies every night before going to sleep on the ground, besides their bed. One night after the children had gone to sleep, the pastor came in the room, she said, turned the light off and undressed her, telling her to keep her mouth shut.

For the following three months he raped her every night.

Her eyes conveyed weariness more common in an adult. Distant and somber, her mind seemed to be traveling to a far away place.

In April last year, she gave birth to a baby girl in the shelter for rape victims where she was staying. Shortly after, she moved back in with her biological family because her father promised to help take care of the newborn. Her counselor at the safe home, a thin and sweet-mannered 27-year-old called Patience Peabody, said over the phone on a recent afternoon that her rapist was freed from prison and back preaching at his church. Right after that happened, Caroline moved to another neighborhood in Monrovia with her mother. Peabody said Caroline was finally attempting to feel fine.

In the fall of 2011, she did one of the things she missed the most when she was in the shelter: she went back to school.

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