Global Policy Forum

Rape, Gender Violence the Norm in Post-War Liberia


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
March 7, 2007

When the West African state of Liberia was torn apart by 14 years of civil war, the victims of the brutal insurgency included mostly women and children who were subject to rape and sexual violence. "Not only are the terrible consequences of this still felt by many Liberian women today, but violence against women and rape continue unchecked," says a new study on Liberia by ActionAid, an international development agency based in South Africa. Rape is currently the most serious crime plaguing Liberia, with an average of eight cases reported per week, and many more never reported to the authorities.

Titled "U.N. Peacekeeping in Liberia: International Engagement in Addressing Violence Against Women", the study has been released to coincide with a two-week session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, which ends Friday. Asked if isn't ironic that sexual abuse continues unabated in post-war Liberia, the first African country with a female head of state, Ernest Gaie, ActionAid country director, told IPS: "The election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (in 2005) has given women's rights an unprecedented profile and momentum in Liberia and the president is personally committed to tackling rape and violence against women." However, he said, Liberia's political system, government institutions and society have not been transformed overnight and the country is still emerging from 14 years of civil war. Still, important steps have been taken, such as the introduction of a new rape law the day before the president's inauguration. "But implementing these mean transforming the dysfunctional justice system. And to do this the government needs significant political and financial support from the international community," Gaie added.

Liberia's violent civil war was triggered by the National Patriotic Front, a rebel group headed by Charles Taylor, a former Liberian president, who is awaiting trial in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Despite the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement by the warring parties three and a half years ago, "women continue to be dehumanised in many ways, and are often deprived of their universal and interdependent rights," Gaie said. Since September 2003, the 15,200-strong U.N. Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has been overseeing peacekeeping operations in the country; monitoring a ceasefire agreement; and supporting humanitarian and human rights activities in the country.

The mandate of UNMIL ends Mar. 31. But the ActionAid study recommends that UNMIL's mandate be extended for at least a year in order to "develop regional security mechanisms, with the intention of keeping an effective military presence in the country for several more years." "The Security Council should note that Liberia remains in a fragile state and should call on the international community to provide generous funds for long-term poverty reduction, peace building and promotion of just and democratic governance," the report said. The study also said that UNMIL can and has played a significant role in tackling violence against women. It also points out that UNMIL has been essential in restoring stability, state authority and the rule of law, and as such, has directly contributed to stemming rape and protecting women. The U.N. mission has also helped establish "an effective criminal justice system to end impunity, deter and punish rape and provide a modicum of justice for survivors."

A report by the U.N. Security Council late last year said that despite considerable overall improvement, the security situation in Liberia "remains fragile and continues to be anchored on the presence of UNMIL, as the new police service is still in its formative stages and the recruitment for the new armed forces is just beginning." Continued efforts are required to manage the internal potential threats to stability, in particular possible violent reactions from elements that stand to lose from the government's far-reaching reform programme, disgruntled ex-combatants, former members of the armed forces and police service, and frustrated unemployed youth.

Gaie said that rape will not be eliminated in a year or even during Sirleaf-Johnson's period in office or UNMIL's lifetime. "But after 14 years of civil war, Liberia's women, with support of the new president and the international community are taking crucial steps towards eradicating this scourge," he added. Alan Doss, the U.N. Special Representative for Liberia, told reporters last month Sirleaf-Johnson has "done a terrific job by anybody's standards." "There was a sense she was in charge, but she has been in office for just one year out of a five-year term, so it was still early" to expect more from her, he added. Asked if it was prudent to assign peacekeepers to stop the violence against women in Liberia, particularly at a time when U.N. peacekeepers are being increasingly accused of rape and sexual abuse in various peacekeeping missions overseas, Gaie told IPS: "Rape and sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers is a gross violation of their duty to protect the local population and must be urgently tackled." Sexual abuse however is not just committed by the United Nations, but also by aid workers and local people, often in positions of authority, such as teachers. It is therefore something that all actors must tackle together and the U.N.'s "zero tolerance" policy is welcomed and should be built on.

In Liberia only two cases of rape by U.N. personnel have been reported compared with eight cases per week across the country. The United Nations, in particular, can contribute significantly to tackling rape through supporting the local police and court system. Furthermore, UNMIL's role in bringing stability to Liberia, and therefore ending widespread rape during the war, cannot be underestimated, Gaie added.

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