The Country Director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Faith Akovi Cooper, revealed troubling statistics of violence against women in Liberia during her opening statement at a Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Prevention and Response Learning Conference hosted in Monrovia on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Madam Cooper spoke to a crowd of over 100 participants represented by civil society organizations, international non-governmental organization, government representatives, donors and the media.
According to her, 4,622 cases of gender-based violence have been treated across the five government-run One-stop Centers (OSCs) that the IRC supports in Montserrado County.
Under IRC's support, the number of survivors supported through the centers continues to increase.
In 2017 a total of 1,344 cases were reported at the centers, while the total nearly doubled to 2,246 in 2018. Between December 2018 and March 2019 the five OSCs treated 1,032 GBV survivors.
This rise is due to increased community outreach in strategic locations resulting in more public awareness about the free, quality services available at the facilities. This has led to more individuals seeking out care, especially adult survivors who are often victims of repeated domestic violence within their own homes.
"These figures are troubling, and if you are sitting in the audience and not bothered by it, there is a problem, because the reality is that, we must all do more to turn the tides on violence against women and girls in this society," Madam Cooper said.
She stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of violence against women and girls. "We live in a society that is mostly reactive and less proactive so there is a tendency to treat the symptom rather than prevent it." Yet, she cautioned, "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."
Participants take note of some of the important comments.
Madam Cooper believes that as long as Liberians do not prioritize the causes of violence against women, it will be difficult to turn the tide in this country. The prevention arm of GBV, according to her, needs government willpower to reinforce laws in creating safe communities for all.
She told the women-dominated gathering that gender-based violence is a human rights issue that requires government's intervention by putting mechanisms into place that will keep the boys and girls, safe at all times.
Madam Cooper also underscored the need for Liberian authorities to begin rethinking how they can strategically and realistically fast track rape cases. "We have all made efforts to build in a meaningful level of collaboration and coordination; there is more to be done on this front, and this is one of the key issues that we want to delve into today," she told the gathering.
The IRC receives funding from Irish Aid to provide comprehensive support to the OSCs and has had a longstanding relationship with Irish around SGBV work. Elena Gromme, Program Advisor at the Irish Embassy in Monrovia, said the fight against gender-based violence is very close to Irish Aid's core mission, and Ireland is fully committed both at the international and at the national level to support initiatives to the sector.
The Irish Embassy has just launched its new development policy for international development, under the title, "A Better World" and gender equality is one of the main priority areas.
"In Liberia, we recently launched our new embassy, and a five-year strategy plan, which reflects our commitment to support Liberia to reach its development goals. Ending violence against women and girls, and empowering them, is a key element of our strategy," Madam Gromme added.
She lauded the entire staff at the One Stop Centers for playing an 'essential job', and coping daily with incredibly distressing and emotionally intense cases of gender violence.
The Deputy Gender, Children and Social Protection Minister, Alice Johnson Howard, lauded IRC for its contributions to the fight against gender-based violence in Liberia and called on everyone to raise-up and ensure that violence against women and girls is eliminated.
Madam Howard shared that just as the country joined together to collaboratively fight Ebola, so too can we can do the same with SGBV in this country.
The event was characterized by statements from various stakeholders working to address GBV, including representatives from civil society organizations, nurses and police officers working at the OSCs, police investigators, as well as those from the Ministry of Justice.
The program included a panel discussion hosted by Madam Bentoiu Tehounge of the Ministry of Health Director of Family Health Division, and participants Madam Susie Telleh, Commander of the Women and Children Protection Section of the Liberia National Police; Ms. Lovett Saydee Sieh, Research Officer for the Gender Based Violence Unit of the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection; Judge Serena F. Garlawolu of Criminal Court E and Ms. Anita K. T. Monger of IRC.
They panelists share about their different roles treating survivors and supporting them to access the judicial system, highlighting their progress as well as key constraints faced in working to end gender-based violence. A key highlight was the briefing by Judge Serena F. Garlawolu of the Criminal Court detailing barriers to convicting perpetrators.
She shared how many SGBV cases lack sufficient evidence to convict the perpetrator; and that medical staff play a key role in gathering necessary evidence, keeping careful records when a survivor reports to an OSC to make a strong case against a perpetrator.
Madam Garlawolu also highlighted that many cases don't ever make it to court, sometimes because parents of child survivors decide to not pursue legal action against the perpetrators. She warned about the necessity of taking legal action, and that in some grave cases the court system cannot allow waivers in even if a parent feels it is not in the best interest of their children.
The day concluded with recommendations from participants which ranged from calls for more comprehensive support across Liberia's counties, the need to fast-track GBV cases through the judicial system, the establishment of safe homes to support survivors in immediate danger, and the importance of strengthening collaboration across the different sectors in the system (clinical, legal, judicial).
The IRC is committed to preventing and responding to GBV through a variety of community-based interventions focused on both response and prevention.
In Monterrado County, in addition to the provision of clinical and psychosocial support to survivors at the five OSCs, IRC also leads a complimentary program in surrounding communities focused on activism, response and empowerment to prevent and respond to GBV.
The programming includes working with men's groups to challenge harmful social norms and drive transformed behavior change, women's economic empowerment programming to increase access to and control of resources to reduce susceptibility of violence, adolescent girls groups to develop life skills and increase their power and safety, and women-led community activism to advocate for changes such as the passage of Liberia's Domestic Violence Bill.