Preliminary findings of a new study by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Columbia University may have given relief workers the evidence they say they need to focus greater attention on the problem of sexual violence in Liberia.
Violence against women and girls, they say, has potentially far-reaching consequences on education, health and development in Liberia as it struggles to recover from 14 years of civil war.
"One of the biggest or more common excuses that we hear [from governments and donors] when we try to bring up the issue of violence against women and girls is 'Show us the numbers if you say this is such a big problem,'" said Heidi Lehmann, senior technical advisor on gender-based violence for the IRC.
Now, she said, the agency has the figures to back up what it has known through its work in Liberia for several years. The study, which surveyed 600 women and girls in eastern Nimba and central Montserrado counties, revealed communities rife with gender-based violence. Nimba and Montserrado are among counties where the IRC works in Liberia.
The study was conducted last June through early August by IRC and Columbia University's Program on Forced Migration and Health at the Mailman School of Public Health. The research is being prepared for submission in a peer-reviewed journal, so all findings are considered preliminary.
The Liberia study used the "neighborhood method" of inquiry, which asks respondents not only about their own experiences, but also those faced by their four closest neighbors.
"Experience to date suggests that commonly used methods to identify protection concerns in complex emergencies are insufficient," according to a descriptive document from the Program on Forced Migration and Health. "The international community's data on protection concerns tend to reflect reported cases," it said, noting that over reporting or under reporting often leads to problems with implementing assistance programs.
The research focused on three types of physical violence: non-sexual domestic abuse, marital rape and rape outside of marriage. Domestic violence affected about 55 percent of women in both counties. This violence included non-sexual acts of physical violence perpetrated by family or other household members.
Outside of marriage, one-fifth of the sample population in Montserrado County and more than one-quarter of those surveyed in Nimba County had been raped or otherwise sexually abused. Among women who declared themselves married or separated, more than 72 percent in both counties reported that their husbands had forced them to have sex in the last 18 months.
The study also said that more than one in 10 girls under the age of 17 had been sexually abused in the previous 18 months in both counties.
Although the study examines sexual violence in only two of Liberia's 15 counties, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that violence against women is a major public health problem in Africa and elsewhere, with "profound" health implications that are often ignored.
Gender-based violence typically soars during and after conflict. At least 50,000 internally displaced women in Sierra Leone were sexually abused at the hands of armed combatants during that country's civil war, according to Physicians for Human Rights. More than 250,000 Rwandan women were raped during the 1994 genocide, the United Nations says.
"During the [Liberian] conflict, girls and women were subjected to multiple forms of sexual violence, including gang rape, sexual slavery, 'survival' sex in exchange for food, and unwanted pregnancies due to rape," said Angela Walker, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which supports programs to educate and empower women in Liberia.
Lehmann says that because conflict-related sexual violence is often seen in the context of emergencies, vision tends to be short-sighted when looking at consequences.
"The long-term consequences of women and girls being raped, whether it's becoming pregnant, contracting an STI [sexually transmitted infection], the social stigmatization that comes with it - that can last a lifetime," she said. "It's not addressed and it has a huge impact on the woman but we also know it has trickle down effects on her children and the overall community."
Liberia is among fewer than 20 African countries that have adopted laws against rape, doing so in January 2006. Ghana last February passed a law against rape after parliament had debated it for five years. In both countries, the law passed only after agreement that provisions making marital rape a crime would not be included.
The passage of legislation against rape is a positive step, Lehmann said, but what follows is equally important. She said the law needs to be applied and survivors must be able to have confidence in the justice system so they are willing to report violations.
"At this point in time, overwhelmingly, incidents of violence are being reported to people in the family or to the immediate social circle and far, far less to the police or court system or even community leaders," said Ann Warner, a graduate student of New York's Columbia University who led the study in Liberia.
"Rape outside of marriage was the type of incident most frequently reported to police and still that was less than 10 percent of the time. "
To help call attention to sexual violence, the IRC on 25 November kicked off "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence," which features blog entries from West Africa focusing on the issue. Part of the aim is to give women an opportunity to document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard.
"Right now [sexual violence] is seen as an add-on issue, kind of a soft issue," said Lehmann. "Until policymakers and governments start to see what a huge impact this has on women's health, on education, on every aspect of women's and girls' lives it's going to continue."