26 June 2019

Liberia: Contextualizing the SGBV Debate

The attention of the Daily Observer is drawn to a story carried in its June 25th edition, headlined "Landmark Domestic Violence Bill Undergoes Scrutiny". According to the story, written by Legislative reporter Leroy M. Sonpon, III, the Legislature is under enormous pressure from local and international organizations to speed up the passage of Domestic Violence Bill.

Available evidence shows the Bill was first introduced on the House floor in 2014 but it did not receive the stamp of approval as expected by its proponents. It was however recently reintroduced on the floor and this time, its proponents are not holding anything back in their determination to have the Bill passed into law. Towards this end, the House Judiciary Committee has announced plans to hold a one-day hearing on the Bill. The hearing is scheduled for Buchanan on June 26, 2019.

Proponents of the Bill say the proposed law encompasses Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) including rape, which is a very key concern across the spectrum of CSOs, INGOs and amongst Liberians in general. As noted in the story, an array of actors including national and international organizations have been invited to attend. Organizers have not made any secret of the fact that international actors and the support they provide are principal drivers of this effort.

According to Schia and de Carvalho (2009) efforts by the international community to address or tackle SGBV in Liberia have been numerous but lacking in coherence and have not yielded the anticipated results. Moreover, according to the authors, progress in this area have been stymied largely by the rather fragmented approach adopted by the United Nations (UN), which are often disconnected or not based on realities obtaining on the ground. The UN, according to them, tends to fragment vulnerable issues. In this scheme of things, SGBV is fragmented with rape taking all the attention at the expense of other forms of gendered violence.

This explains why female genital mutilation (FGM) which, although roundly condemned by 10 UN agencies in 2008, remained completely off the UN agenda during the period of UNIMIL's stay in Liberia and even up to present. This does not however suggest that rape does not deserve appropriate attention. Rape is a scourge whose incidence continues to rise. According to UNMIL at least 50 cases of rape a month were being reported to the Police in 2008.

But while rape may be major problem, an even more difficult but seldom noticed problem is the fact that victims of SGBV, especially rape, find it very difficult if not impossible to access justice. While herculean efforts are being expended to address SGBV, it appears that scant attention is being paid to the country's corrupt criminal justice system and is one in which women are most disadvantaged, owing much in part to their inability to shoulder partly or in whole, expenses related to securing justice.

Another form of gendered violence often ignored is the abuse of Liberian women employed in domestic occupations. Because they are non-unionized, they do not enjoy the kind of protection, however minimal, that workers in other sectors enjoy. Sexual harassment by employers is a key concern expressed by female domestic workers as well as demeaning and degrading treatment often meted out to them, especially by their foreign employers. As should be obvious and apparent, institutional responses to SGBV cannot be effective unless the rule of law institutions as a whole function properly. Proponents of the Bill should never lose sight of the fact that justice for victims of SGBV shall continue to remain elusive if justice for the ordinary individual remains unattainable.

This means, for instance, corruption in the Police and the criminal justice system at large must be checked to help enhance access to justice. Also, the dire lack of resources by the Police to enable them fight crime needs to be addressed. And it must be stressed that the provision of such resources must be considered within the context of the working methods of the LNP and moreover the provision of such resources should take into account running costs such as fuel, etc.

But more importantly account must be taken of the dual systems of law (Traditional and Statutory), an account which should see them complementing each other rather than ignoring the antagonisms too often highlighted as challenges, but about which little efforts have been expended to address in a meaningful way.

Finally, advocates against gender violence should also not lose sight of the realities of structural violence, which has kept Liberian women in a state of virtual servitude since independence in 1847. Liberian society was erected on a hierarchy of power, ethnic and gender relations dominated by a settler minority for over a century. As such, discussions of gender including SGBV and access to justice must be contextualized within a broad discussion of those influences and factors that have tended to restrict individual self-actualization and upward social mobility, as well as the full realization of individual and community rights and their overall wellbeing.

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