Two-thirds of rape victims in Liberia are children

Julia Duncan Cassell, Liberia's Minister of Gender and Development
Julia Duncan Cassell, Liberia’s Minister of Gender and Development

The Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Shireaf, has appeared on Liberian television on Monday to denounce the country’s epidemic of child rape, calling it one of Liberia’s “biggest challenges” and “a growing concern”.

“It is shameful that this continues to mar the image of our country,” Sirleaf said.

She said current legislation was undermined by “families of victims who are easily compromised, by the lack of evidence, and by sympathetic judges” and called on communities to do more to bring rapists to justice.

“I chaired a meeting of women leaders… who are working on a program that will call on religious, traditional and community leaders, parents, teachers, women and youth groups to become agents of change and commit to take action to prevent sexual violence, as this is everyone’s responsibility,” she said.

“We need your support also, to ensure that our children and our women are safe.”

According to Liberia’s Gender Ministry, ” 65 percent of the 1,002 cases reported in 2013 concerned victims aged between three and 14, yet just 137 cases came to court with only 49 rapists convicted”. In a statement to journalists, the Gender Ministry also said: “As a result of rape 10 children from eight counties between the ages of three and 14 died during the year 2013. In some of the cases the perpetrators are still at large.”

The Gender Ministry deplored the habit of families to coverr up the rape if the attacker is related to the victim. There was also a lack of qualified medical personnel.

“Parents are compromising the cases because mostly the perpetrators are relatives or friends. We can say that the figure could be at least three times this if parents were not compromising,” the ministry said.

However, many people eschew the Western-style court and medical system and prefer “mediation by community elders or village chiefs”.

The website Global Post reported on a recent case, unbeknown to most of the outside world, whereby a 14-year-old girl Olivia Zinnah was buried here on 22 December, “after suffering years of pain and surgeries following a rape when she was 7”.

Olivia Zinnah

Although the country’s Gender Ministry made efforts to draw attention to Zinnah’s death, her passing went unremarked but for a few stories in local media. Zinnah, who died of an infection in a Monrovia hospital a week before Christmas, was the fourth girl this year to succumb to rape-related injuries in this West African nation of four million, the ministry said.

For three years after her 2005 violation in a rural area outside Monrovia, Zinnah received only traditional healing, which can include herbs and sorcery. She was not taken to a doctor. Police were not called. When her uncle Lawrence Samuel came to visit the family in 2008, he was shocked to see Olivia in a terrible state, with poorly treated wounds and a systemic infection.

“She was almost decomposed from the infection,” said Samuel, 70.

Samuel asked women in the family what had happened and they told him Olivia had been raped by a family member, he said. Samuel reported the crime and named the suspect to the police, brought his niece to Monrovia for medical care, and contacted the Ministry of Gender, he said.

Ministry officials took on Olivia’s case, paying for her medical treatment and four surgeries, the last of which left her with a colostomy bag.

“We did everything we could to save her,” said Gender Minister Julia Duncan Cassell.

Doctors Without Borders (DWB) in 2011 reported that 92 percent of females treated for rape in its Liberia facilities were under 18. A DWB study published in November said that of about 1,500 females treated in Monrovia clinics in 2008 and 2009 after rape, four out of 10 were younger than 12 and one in 10 were younger than 5. “Half the survivors were children aged 13 years or younger and included infants and toddlers,” the report said.

Because sexual violence so often goes unreported, it’s impossible to know the true scale of the child-rape problem here. In many cases, families of raped children accept money from the rapist to hush up the crime, Cassell said. In Olivia’s case, it does not appear her family accepted any money, but once the girl’s uncle reported the crime, the rest of the family shunned both Olivia and her mother, Cassell said. That common social penalty imposed on those who break silence around rape cases combines with the payoffs to deter reporting and foster impunity for rapists, the minister said.

“There are a lot of other Olivias out there that we don’t know about,” Cassell said.

Deputy Gender Minister Annette Kiawu played a central role in the ministry’s intervention in Olivia’s case.

“For her it was difficult,” Kiawu said. “She always had an urge to want to play like the other children. You would see her once in a while laughing, or trying to jump around. She used to smile every now and then.”

Although linkages have been drawn between widespread sexual violence during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war and the current levels of sexual violence, Cassell said the causes of Liberia’s epidemic child rape go beyond the fallout from conflict that ended a decade ago. Poverty leads to the settlements and thus to impunity; poor education leads to a lack of understanding among males of the physical and emotional damage caused by rape; high rates of teen pregnancy lead to lots of mothers unequipped to secure girls from predators, Cassell said.

“You’ve got a 16-year-old girl with two children already,” Cassell said. “How does she know how to protect her children?”

The alleged perpetrator of Olivia’s rape was arrested, but released without prosecution. Gender ministry officials are investigating to determine why he went free, and plan to get the case reopened. “He needs to pay for that,” Cassell said.

Her ministry paid for Olivia’s funeral, and ministry officials were on hand to discuss the case with a handful of local media, part of Cassell’s effort to bring attention onto the child-rape issue, and build awareness among the populace about the need to prevent and report sexual violence. So far, there’s been no significant public reaction to the death of Olivia here or abroad. – News agencies and Global Post website