19 October 2018

Liberia Government Must Ensure That Those Teenage Girls Are Served Justice

Photo: Nyasa Times
Ten girls between the ages of 10 and 16 were raped.
editorial

ON THURSDAY OCTOBER 18, a group of Liberians or protesters under the banner, '#UNPROTECTED,' marched throughout the principal streets of Monrovia to call the attention of key stakeholders to the plight of some teenage girls, who were allegedly raped at the very place that should have provided protection for them against what they went through.

THE PROTESTERS, PREDOMINANTLY WOMEN and cladded in black, in their petition, they called on the government to revoke the license of the American charity organization, More Than Me, which began operations in Liberia in 2011 to offer protection and education for those teenagers. They presented copies of their petition to senior government officials, including the Ministers of Justice, Education, and Gender and later to the Vice President, Madam Jewel Howard Taylor.

IT WAS AT THIS CHARITY ORGANIZATION that the teenage girls, as young as 10, were allegedly raped by the More Than Me's co-founder. These protesters' call for justice against this NGO should be welcomed and appreciated by every lover of rule of law.

SIX DAYS AGO, PROPUBLICA, an independent, New York City-based nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, wrote a somewhat damning, well-researched, and an in-depth article on the workings of More Than Me, an international non-governmental organization (NGO).

MORE THAN ME in collaboration with the Liberian government, through its Ministry of Education, operates 19 primary academic institutions, containing several thousands of Liberian school-going children. The international NGO's flagship school, which is located on Monrovia's Ashmum Street, and which features heavily in ProPublica's report, only admits girls.

THESE GIRLS ARE PREDOMINANTLY FROM WEST POINT, one of Liberia's largest slum communities, which are scattered all around the city of Monrovia. West Point, which is a narrow stretch of land along the Atlantic Ocean, hosts more than 70,000 of some of the world's very impoverished people, who live in clustered, shanty zinc shacks.

ACCORDING TO THE NEW YORK CITY-based investigative newsroom, this "acclaimed American charity said it was saving some of the world's most vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation. But from the very beginning, girls were being raped."

When this news broke six days ago, nearly everyone who read it then and have been following the discussions, reacted with rage.

MOST LIBERIANS HAVE BEEN accusing Katie Meyler, the American founder of the NGO, of turning a blind eye while the girls, the institution had been set up to protect, were being raped by More Than Me's co-founder, Macintosh Johnson.

ACCORDING TO PROPUBLICA, "After his crimes became known, filling hundreds of pages of police and legal records, the charity worked to obscure the details and to place responsibility almost anywhere but with Meyler or MTM: Liberia's culture was blamed. As a growing number of former staff, victims and their families told ProPublica their stories, More Than Me fought to contain the damage. Senior charity officials, with Liberian government support, cross-examined key witnesses, asking if they wanted to take back what they had said. Many of those they reached still rely on the charity for support. They told the charity they no longer wanted their stories published.

"The More Than Me board, in a statement, said that the moment it learned of the abuse, the charity took immediate action. 'We are doing everything in our power to foster a safe and secure environment that will prevent our students from being victimized again.' Charity representatives also spoke of enemies and vendettas. They argued that the good they had done in Liberia more than made up for any harm."

KATIE, WHO FIRST TOUCHED DOWN IN 2006 in Liberia for an internship with an evangelical charity, many times has said that as a child, she considered herself poor. Her single mother worked minimum wage jobs. She further stated that other children in their rich neighborhoods made fun of her.

FOR THIS AND OTHER REASONS, she decided to do all she could to help those vulnerable girls she had come across on Monrovia's streets as she moved around in those early days. She went back home and raised millions of United States Dollars to jump start her More Than Me. Unfortunately, something lurked beneath her good gesture.

BECAUSE THE GIRLS INVOLVED in this saga are some of the most vulnerable anywhere on the planet, feminist movements, including the '#UNPROTECTED,' have sprouted up all around the place condemning and pressuring the Liberian Government, through its Ministry of Justice, to press charges against Katie and More Than Me.

THE LIBERIAN GOVERNMENT has been forced to reopen a previous case file that it had closed following the death of Johnson, Katie's partner at More Than Me. When the rape charge was brought against Johnson, he was sent to prison as the crime is a non-bailable offense in Liberia. He was tried and the jurors reached a "hung verdict," meaning the jurors were inconclusive in their decision and so he could not be set free or sentenced. But because the crime is non-bailable, he had to stay in prison waiting for another date for a new trial.

UNFORTUNATELY, WHILE IN PRISON awaiting the new trial date, he died and following his death, the case was closed. There are reports that he was living the AIDS virus and that he might have passed the deadly virus on to some of his young victims. But with the recent revelation from ProPublica, the Liberian Government has reopened the file to begin reviewing the pages.

WE WANT TO CAUTIOUSLY WELCOME this latest development by the Liberian Government. We also join the protesters in their call for justice for those vulnerable teenage girls, who only want to be educated in order for them to be some of Liberia's respected citizens.

WE HOPE THAT THE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE will do all to bring to conclusion a logical closure for those girls who became victims of Johnson's alleged act of rape.

Let this not be just another investigation that many a time, is never looked into thoroughly by state actors, who have oversight.

REMEMBER, THOSE GIRLS have now been scarred; everything needs to be done by their government so that they don't grow up living this nightmare. The Government should prioritize and ensure the safety and well-being of these girls, which may or may not include their temporary relocation.

INASMUCH AS WE ARE A POOR and a small nation, we still have dignity to keep. The prevalence of violence against women and girls in our society should stop. Let's not allow the culture of impunity, which has for so long been entrenched, to cloud our judgment and prevent these girls and their parents/guidance from accessing justice.

Frontpagaafrica Wants To Remind the Liberian government to use this as an opportunity to advance its continued commitment to Liberian women and girls and urges it to keep ensuring adequate laws and mechanisms are in place to protect Liberian women and girls at all times from inhumane experiences.

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