Beyond the War: Liberian Women's Other Horror Stories

By Jestina Doe-Anderson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 14, 2006


The year 2005 was a momentous one for Liberian women, with two particularly noteworthy milestones: the historic election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the first woman president of Liberia, and the passing into law of a new rape bill. One can only hope that the former of these mutually exclusive events will have a significant influence on the success of the latter.

Many have said that the election of a woman as president of a nation that has upheld a legacy of male supremacy is an indication that our women are challenging the stereotypes and making extraordinary strides toward gender equity. This feat, unprecedented on the continent of Africa as well as in many developed and underdeveloped nations the world over, demonstrates that some women have succeeded in rising above the intimidation of our conventional male-dominated political mainstream.

Countless Liberians, especially victims of rape and those who sympathize with their plight, have received the news of the passing of the new rape law with mixed feelings. Under the new law, rape is punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if first-degree (i.e., the victim was less than 18 years old at the time of offense; the offense involved gang rape; the act of rape resulted in either permanent disability or serious bodily injury to the victim; or the victim was threatened by a deadly weapon), and 10 years imprisonment if second-degree.

Of particular interest are definitions within the law for the “Offense” and for “Consent.” In the case of a victim who is less than 18 years old, there is no reference to consent. The wording in the definitions indicate, therefore, that a sexual encounter involving someone who is less than 18 years old (the victim) and someone who is 18 years of age or older (the perpetrator or “actor”), whether consensual or not, constitutes an offense of first-degree rape on the part of the perpetrator. Prior to this amendment, the law stipulated that sexual intercourse with a child below the age of 16 years was “statutory” rape, an offense that was punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.

One might argue that the definitions in the new law have some fairly harsh stipulations, considering that a consensual relationship between a 17 year-old and a 19 year-old would constitute first-degree rape on the part of the elder participant. It is easy to imagine how individuals can use this law for reasons for which it was not intended, and deter from the true intentions: to deliver justice to those who have committed rape as an act of violence or as sexual exploitation of a minor.

Our small nation-state has endured more than 130 years of minority rule and class supremacy, and another 25 cumulative years of anarchy, ineptitude, physical destruction and unparalleled corruption. Yet, we have assigned blame for everything, including the breakdown of our moral infrastructure, to a 25-year period of civil unrest. Many have argued that the ungodly act of rape originated with the “heathenous” perpetrators of the 1980 coup d’état, and increased in alarming proportions during the lawless years of the Civil War. What a plausible excuse, as sexual violence against women is an inevitable - even normative - aspect of war. What a feeble excuse! The truth is that rape is a practice so deeply entrenched in our history that it has become a natural part of our patriarchal culture.

Amnesty International reported that between 60% and 70% of the Liberian population suffered some form of sexual violence during the civil conflict although it is highly probable that these numbers are underestimated. According to the report, the victims were predominantly women and girls, but the findings of the study indicated that some men and boys had also been victimized. As alarming as these statistics may seem, it is unfortunate that no such statistics have been collected for the countless acts of rape that were committed before or after that specific period of civil conflict.

Our Pre- and Post-War Legacy of Rape and Pedophilia

In Liberia, it is well known that men who have a penchant for pre-adolescent girls are not an anomaly to our society. This is a legacy that has been shared from time immemorial by our Westernized or civilized and Traditional or country people alike, and continues to this day.

Within the traditional setting, it has been asserted that sexual encounters between adults and children are not tolerated; but early marriage has been used as a means of legitimizing this act. Somehow, there exists this premise that marriage, whether ceremonious or not, confers upon a pre-adolescent child the anatomical, physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacity to handle a sexual encounter with a fully developed adult. Those who contest the practice have been accused of imposing western values on our customs, discounting our culture, and perhaps even defying our tradition.

In the Westernized setting, however, the case has been quite different. Our Westernized leaders have advocated high moral standards, largely based on religious principles. Our intellectuals have crafted laws that provide an illusion of respect for human rights and the rule of law to impress a burgeoning human rights audience. Yet, without thinking too hard, many Liberians can name at least one of these very leaders and intellectuals - at least one prominent member of our society - who is known to have engaged in sexual relations with a child. So in our presumably upright society where few offenses should be more despised than the sexual abuse of a child - where sex offenders should engender considerable public disapproval - we have continued to victimize our youth by protecting their offenders in light of the offender’s public, social, or economic status. The unfortunate reality is that this act of child abuse has been dismissed historically as status quo, leaving the victims with no recourse but to suffer in silence - and often in solitude.

Ours is a nation where known pedophiles have been appointed or elected to positions of political prominence. Prior to 1980, it was customary for high-ranking officials to be “supplied” or “presented” with young girls in their pre- to early teens during official visits to the hinterlands. Economically disadvantaged parents also were known to offer their young daughters to these men with hopes of some financial benefit to the family. And it was not uncommon for the men to bring home native children to “raise”, only to disclose in later years that the children were actually their own offspring — or sexual partners — or both. It is even alleged that futile attempts were made to lower the age of consent from 16 to 12 years during the administration of President William R. Tolbert. Perhaps this was intended to give an illusion of respect for the law as it pertained to “statutory rape.”

During our years of civil unrest, with the progression of anarchy and wanton abandon, respect for women and womanhood became severely diminished. Sexual exploitation became commonplace, and there was no longer need for negotiations in that regard. Very young girls, in dire need of a livelihood, took their most valued property — their bodies — to the market. This became a virtual field day for the average middle-aged, pot bellied, soon-to-suffer-a-stroke Liberian man with a few dollars to spare.

Not only our government officials, but also the average “Joe” could publicly flaunt teenage sexual partners or exploits knowing that they were above the law. Who would dare accuse any one of them of rape, even with the disclosure of the new rape law and President Johnson-Sirleaf’s vow to ensure that the rape law is fully enforced? Perhaps this is why, in the recent past, some Liberian and foreign nationals alike have been consistently blatant in their disregard for the rape law. Why not, when we have the likes of Senator Cllr. Joseph Nagbe of Sinoe County who would exercise political power to avert the prosecution of five Russian men alleged to have gang-raped two young Liberian girls! After all, how can an institution that is dominated by men regulate an activity that is driven primarily by men? As for Senator Nagbe, his actions have made a mockery of his profession as a lawyer, and of the confidence reposed in him by the Liberian people who elected him into office. This, therefore, raises concerns about the ability and intention of our current legal and political systems to respond judicially and effectively to the enforcement of the law.

But the new rape law also has appeared to raise the awareness and confidence of rape victims, their families, friends, and sympathizers. Never before has rape been discussed so openly in our communities; never before have so many victims and their families come forward; and never before have so many families of victims refused to take the usual path of settling rape cases out of court.

It will be regrettable if we permit our pervasive culture of impunity to invalidate yet another law. We must therefore be appreciative and supportive of those men, women, and organizations that tirelessly advocate for enforcement of the rape laws.

Incest, Statutory Rape, and the Conspiracy of Silence
Incest has irrefutably been recognized as an internationally acclaimed abomination. In Liberia, it is considered such a repulsive topic that it is rarely discussed in good company. So we said nothing about the daughter repeatedly molested by her father with the full knowledge of her high-society stepmother, but we condemn her as an adult for cutting herself off from her family. We silently pitied the 15-year-old schoolgirl who was dropped off at school one morning in blood-soaked panties after being raped by a middle-aged friend of the family. We spoke in hushed voices and closed circles about the successful businessman who engaged in sexual intercourse with his “outside children”; daughters he had with indigenous women while he made all efforts to respect and protect the virtue of the daughter of his westernized wife. We ostracized the 14-year-old girl who experienced her first abortion so as not to bear her father’s child, and gossiped about the 16-year-old who was defiled by her father so her young boyfriend would not be the one to take her virginity. We all knew these acts to be wrong, but we remained silent to protect the image of the perpetrators and their families.

These accounts are not fictional; names and further details have simply been withheld to protect the innocent. And even with names withheld, the evidence is enough to identify the cast of characters. These girls and women are our sisters, daughters, partners, and friends. They are the victims of a conspiracy of silence. They are OUR victims because we, as a society, have failed to challenge powerful social and family norms and speak out against this despicable age-old practice. This practice that existed prior to the war was exacerbated during the war, and it did not end with the cessation of the war. This is our sordid history, much of which will render the new rape bill worthless unless we are prepared to advocate relentlessly for full enforcement of the law, irrespective of the status of the perpetrator.

Prosecuting sexual abusers will undoubtedly be a Herculean task, given the current lack of political will and commitment of resources towards this end. Just a few months ago, Corporal Rashidi Ibrahim, a Nigerian UNMIL soldier, was arrested for allegedly raping a nine year-old Liberian girl. The public outrage was such that no one would have expected him to be walking around scot-free today in his home country. No one would have expected such silence from the very United Nations, which has documented standards and codes of conduct for all categories of personnel serving under the United Nations Flag.

In his April 2004 report on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, the UN Secretary-General sought “ the support of Member States in ensuring that military personnel serving with United Nations peacekeeping operations are held accountable for any acts of sexual exploitation and abuse." Even the Security Council requested the Secretary-General to urge troop-contributing countries to “take appropriate preventive action, including the conduct of pre-deployment awareness training, and to take disciplinary action and other action to ensure that allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse against their personnel are properly investigated and, if substantiated, punished.” To date, we have no evidence that any of this has been done.

As adults, we have the implicit responsibility to protect our children from evil. Yet many of the same people charged with this responsibility are the ones who are exposing them to the dangers of sexual abuse, either through their actions or inactions. For too long, our girls have been at an unfair disadvantage, and those who have overseen their debasement with passive acceptance should be considered just as guilty as the perpetrators themselves. Unless something is done now, women and girls who are victims of rape will be at risk of a repeat assault - and girls who have not will continue to be at risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse and its physical, emotional, behavioral and societal consequences.

Rape is not just a crime against individual victims - it is a crime against our society and the future of our nation. Rape is a crime that will severely impact our education, health, and economics statistics, and will have enormous implications on the humanity and well being of everyone within our borders and beyond. Outrage is insufficient. We must prepare to address the controversies that shape the debates about rape and take our lawmakers to task. We must applaud the efforts of organizations like the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL) and all those individuals who are toiling to overcome the barriers of bringing perpetrators of rape crimes to justice. We must not yield until appropriate and necessary actions are taken to offer a happier ending to these horror stories.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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