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Health, justice lacking for abused women

[Liberia] Prisonners in Liberia. [Date picture taken: 11/01/2005]
The prisons service found an HIV-infection level of almost 10 percent among inmates. (Eric Kanalstein/UNMIL)

"It was a shock for me when I was raped," the lithe 15-year-old girl said with tears running down her face. "The man called and asked me to help him wash his clothes. After doing the washing, he told me to clean up his bedroom and while doing that he jumped on me, tore off my clothes and began raping me."

Explaining her ordeal to IRIN, the girl, who did not want to be named or identified in any way, said the man raped her four months ago. The case was reported to the local court, but has yet to be heard.

The girl said she bled for three weeks after the incident and still feels pain. She has a medical certificate confirming that she was raped. But the man has fled the community since her parents took the case to court, and the girl said she has little hope of seeing him face justice.

"I have not seen him around since he raped me and we have not heard anything from the police as to what efforts they are making to arrest him," she said. "I need justice," she said, tears flowing again, as her 60-year-old grandmother took her hand. The girl was eight when her father was killed in Liberia's 13-year civil war.

Abuse is normal

Her brutal experience is not an anomaly in post-conflict Liberia: it is the norm. Government officials, aid workers and community leaders said attacks like this happen every day, most without even raising comment let alone making the newspapers.

But as Liberia rebuilds its infrastructure and society after a war in which armed rebels and child soldiers murdered, raped and looted their way round the country with impunity, women are starting to step forward to talk about attacks, and report their attackers to the authorities.

According to the results of a government survey in 10 of Liberia's 15 counties for the period 2005-2006, 92 percent of the 1,600 women interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual violence, including rape.

Annie Jones Demen, Liberia's deputy Gender Affairs minister and coordinator of a gender-based violence taskforce, told IRIN on Friday: "We now have more reports on sexual and gender-based violence. Survivors of sexual violence now feel safe to come out to say they were raped."

Corynne Harvey, a sexual and gender-based violence officer at the American relief NGO International Rescue Committee, agreed.

"IRC has seen a huge increase in the reporting of sexual and gender-based violence cases earlier in the beginning of 2006, somewhere around six to 10 cases a month, including rape, domestic violence, sexual exploitation and physical assaults," she said

In the past three months, 164 cases of gender-based violence have been reported to the IRC in Lofa County, Harvey said, adding that many of the reports come from women returning from refugee camps in Guinea, Ghana and beyond, recounting their experiences during the war.

The new war

As the true scale of Liberia's sex-crime problem reveals itself, the country's almost non-existent health infrastructure is overstretched, medical workers say.

Despite the boom in rape cases, only one hospital in Monrovia has a unit dedicated to treating rape victims.

The Doctors Without Borders (MSF Spain)-run Benson hospital in the eastern suburbs of Monrovia is where victims from as far away as central Bong County, 150 km north, and Margibi County, some 45 km north, normally go to seek free medical treatment.

Medical staff told IRIN that between 10 and 15 rape victims are treated on a monthly basis.

"There is always a high influx of girls, mostly teenagers who come to this hospital complaining that they were raped. We offer them free medical treatment. They come from all over, Monrovia, Margibi, Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and Bong Counties," a doctor told IRIN, asking that his name not be used.

He said most of the rape victims reporting at Benson from other counties do not trust the health clinics in rural areas.

"Rape is now the new war in Liberia, because our girls are being destroyed by older men who should be protecting them. It is now a serious issue," he said.

Benson hospital and Redemption Hospital in the western outskirts of Monrovia are the two recognised hospitals where certificates are issued to rape victims.

Still no justice

While women might be more willing to talk to their doctors, families and the police about their ghastly experiences, few still get the chance to hold their accused attackers to account in a court of law.

In what prosecutors say is an all too common case, a 13-year-old rape victim told IRIN that her step-mother had reached her own compromise with the 30-year-old paedophile who attacked her rather than bothering with the courts.

"Everybody knew in my neigbourhood that I was raped, they heard me crying while the act was taking place. He raped me near the graveyard at night," the girl said.

Held up by local men, the accused man opened his wallet and paid up, after which the family agreed not to press charges.

A law passed in December made rape illegal for the first time in Liberia - previously only gang rape was considered a crime. The new law forbids bail and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

But the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in a human rights report released last month said Liberia's courts and police have failed to fully prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence since the new rape law came into effect.

Lois Bruthus, head of the Female Lawyers Association of Liberia (AFELL), an NGO that pushed for the law, said: "We need more lawyers to take on the task of seeing to it that rapists are fully prosecuted. Our girls, women and children are being abused regularly."

Rosetta Stephens, a young, community-based anti-rape campaigner, told IRIN: "This is a major challenge to the Liberian justice system to see to it that those committing these acts do not go scout-free. Let the law takes it course against them."

ak/nr/cs


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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