Monrovia — 'The woman is the property of the man, and the way our society is structured puts women into a position where they will always be violated.'
More than three months ago, Liberian President George Weah declared rape a national emergency at a keynote conference, vowing to improve support for rape survivors and strengthen the country's prosecution system.
But few concrete steps have been taken since and Weah's ambitious-sounding promises were quickly drowned out by the din of campaigning in the run-up to last week's Senate elections: Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) hardly featured as an issue.
The appointment of a Special Prosecutor for rape, the creation of a National Sex Offenders Registry, and the establishment of a National Security Task Force on SGBV are all now stalled initiatives. "There has not been any progress made on the government's part," said a disappointed Benita Urey, a 22-year-old student, blogger, and charity worker.
Launching the government's anti-abuse roadmap in September, Weah acknowledged the "alarming increase in rape and sexual and gender-based violence in recent times, especially during a time when we are at war with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic".
What led Weah to make his declaration began with one appalling act of sexual violence. In August, a three-year-old girl in the northern county of Gbarpolu was lured away from the central water pump in her grandmother's village.
Moments later, she was attacked by a 15-year-old high school student who used a razor blade to slice open her genital area and penetrate her. He is in police custody awaiting trial. The girl survived.
The attack sparked public outrage and led to three days of protest in the capital, Monrovia, by a collective of mainly youth-led groups demanding the government act against the spike in SGBV cases.
COVID not the only culprit
Coronavirus - as Weah suggested - has played its part. The lockdown, ordered in March to control its spread, closed schools and kept people at home. As in the rest of the world, those measures heightened the risk of sexual abuse, especially for young girls.
Between January and July this year, more than 150 SGBV cases were forwarded to Criminal Court E, the designated court for sex crimes - double the number for the same period last year, said Isaac George, director of the SGBV crimes unit.
But campaigners say COVID-19 has masked a deeper problem: a culture of impunity that has gone hand in hand with an even longer tradition around gender inequality and the marginalisation Liberian women often face.
"The issue of SGBV in Liberia is not something that just started," said 23-year-old gender advocate Aaron Ireland, who was among the protest organisers. "This has been going on from generation to generation, and nothing has been done about it."
Rates of sexual violence were extremely high during 14 years of back-to-back civil wars in Liberia that upended society. And there is a common perception that the continuing high SGBV prevalence is largely down to that culture of impunity. But after 17 years of peace, many feel that wartime experiences can no longer be used as an excuse for continued abuses. What is needed are substantive societal changes that go beyond legal reform.
"All of us have friends who have been raped, by their fathers, by their stepfathers, by their friends, by their uncles," said Urey, the student and blogger.
Deputy Minister for Gender Alice Johnson Howard sees the increase in Liberia's rape figures as reflecting a greater public awareness and faith in the justice system. "People know now where to go to report and how to report," she told The New Humanitarian.
But if there is greater awareness of SGBV, it has not translated into strong conviction rates. Out of the total SGBV cases handled by Criminal Court E in the first seven months of this year, there were just 42 convictions - a problem common to legal systems around the world.
Weak prosecution system
The weakness of the judicial system is one issue. "Compromised cases and the weakness of the justice system are the reasons why rape cases are sky-rocketing," said Deddeh Kwekwe, executive director of My Voice, My Safety, a Liberian NGO, and former director for SGBV at the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
Much of this comes down to a lack of cash. A 2017 study by UN Women concluded that "institutions mandated to combat SGBV are not adequately resourced", which undermines their ability to deliver.
The process of collecting evidence is hampered by the absence of a forensic laboratory or functioning DNA-testing machine, said Howard. She argues that special courts to try SGBV cases need to be set up in all 15 counties of Liberia.
Even at the first stage of reporting a rape, "police will say they don't have the means to reach the crime scene," said Ne-Suah Beyan-Livingstone, whose Rescue for the Abandoned and Children in Hardship charity is caring for the three-year-old rape survivor.
From hiring a motorbike to get officers to the crime scene, to the pen and paper needed to produce a report, costs are borne by complainants for the police to do their job.
As well as being too poor to navigate the judicial process, economic dependence and the prevalence of rape within extended families can prevent victims from reporting perpetrators in the first place, with relatives preferring to manage the situation the "family way".
"Maybe a girl's uncle rapes her but this uncle is the breadwinner of the family," protest organiser Ireland told TNH. "So even if the family is aware, they might be afraid to speak out because this is somebody who's bringing food home."
The rural challenge
Hawa Dunor-Varney, who leads a project tackling SGBV in Liberia, told TNH that this reluctance to pursue justice through formal, state-run channels is more pronounced in rural areas, where sexual violations are a taboo subject and victims are less inclined to speak out,
In the same way, stigma surrounding same-sex relations nationwide deters male rape victims from pursuing justice, with case numbers suspected to be far higher than reported.
The lack of reporting in conservative rural societies is compounded by the distance between far-flung communities and Criminal Court E in Monrovia.
Instead, disputes tend to be mediated through more accessible but male-dominated traditional justice mechanisms such as the "palava hut", with discussions directed by community elders. These processes tend to dismiss the suffering women face and reinforce gender inequality.
"We live in a patriarchal society where men have power and women are vulnerable, so the men take advantage, including through sexual violence," said Dunor-Varney. For her, the heart of the problem is the entitlement some men feel towards women's bodies: "The woman is the property of the man, and the way our society is structured puts women into a position where they will always be violated."
And that can even extend to the body of a three-year-old girl.
With the consent of her family, the girl now lives with Beyan-Livingstone at her home in a quiet Monrovia suburb that doubles as a refuge for children in crisis.
"She can tell you [the name of her attacker]; she can describe him," said Beyan-Livingstone. "And do you know what she tells me? She says to me, 'Mom, have you killed him?'"