... Observes AFELL President
The president of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), Attorney Vivian D. Neal, says access to justice for victims and survivors of Sexual Gender-based Violence (SGBV) remains a challenge in the country, a release has said.
According to the release, Atty. Neal made the statement while making a presentation on the "Current Trends of SGBV in Liberia," at this year's National Colloquium on SGBV Prevention and Response in Liberia at the Monrovia City Hall.
She said that Liberia has a high rate of reported violence against women and girls.
"The 2018 annual report of Gender Ministry GBV statistics states that of the 2,105 cases reported, 81 percent is sexual violence; 71 percent were female survivors less than 18 years. These numbers do not capture the true state of the violence women and girls face as many more cases are not reported or are disposed of through the out of court settlement," Atty. Neal said in her presentation.
According to her, access to justice for survivors of violence remains a challenge, due primarily to the low level of cases prosecuted and adjudicated.
Atty. Neal recalled how 218 cases were presented to the grand jury by the SGBV Crime Unit (Montserrado County) in 2018 with 50 cases being indicted, tried cases six, with only five cases won.
She told the participants that the AFFELL is assisting the government to prosecute criminal cases under the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Rule of Law Project.
Atty. Neal also outlined some of the challenges as low level of cases prosecuted and adjudicated; "the state's inability to use the DNA machine to confirm a single case of sexual violence, despite the arrest of alleged perpetrators; the state's inability and lack of political will to criminalize Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)."
She added, "The financial burden is on survivor/victim's parents to ensure that alleged perpetrators get arrested or incarcerated in prisons after cases have been reported to the police and the court."
Atty. Neal also said the sustainability of AFELL's representation for indigent (poor) clients in court and the lack of government safe homes for survivors of sexual and other forms of violence still remains another challenge.
The one-stop centers for SGBV cases have since been established, but lack adequate drugs; while only one of the three regional hubs is functional; criminal court "E" in Nimba remains non-functional, and the lack of adequate resources and understanding of trafficking to effectively investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes still serve as an impediment.
Atty. Neal said that the Women and Children Protection Section in almost every police station participated in the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act (2019). Therefore, she recalled some achievements as the establishment of Criminal Court "E" in Nimba County, three Regional Hubs One-Stop-Centers for SGBV Cases established in seven of the 16 counties.
National Human Trafficking Taskforce Government has DNA machine and personnel have been trained.
She recommended that there is a need to strengthen and replicate criminal court "E" in the other counties and that judges in criminal court "E" sit simultaneously to reduce the overcrowding of dockets and pre-trial detention for sexual-related offenses.
"There is a need for necessary electronic gadgets and expertise to conduct a scientific and forensic investigation of sexual violence. The police continue to lack basic investigatory tools, though there are safe homes in seven of the 15 counties," said Atty. Neal.
She also stressed the need to extend services to other counties.
"The government's efforts to establish transit homes are applauding, but there is also a need for the government to have its own 'Safe Home' to accommodate victims and survivors who have the need to stay a little longer," she recommended.
She said as part of some of the key ways of prevention, there is a need to raise SGBV awareness in schools, religious institutions, as well as engaging traditional leaders on harmful traditional practices.
"There is a need for trained nurses, doctors, police and other personnel to efficiently and effectively respond to SGBV cases. Effective coordination among the personnel is also key. There is a need for a National Legal Aid Legislation so as to ease the burden on victims/survivors and to also ensure better coordination and response to SGBV," Atty. Neal said.
She also spoke of the need for more coordinated efforts toward data collection on SGBV cases between civil society actors and authorities at the Ministry of Gender.