Timely justice for rape victims in Liberia

LORETTA GEORGE, A SUPPORT OFFICER IN THE SGBV CRIMES UNIT THAT PROVIDES LEGAL, PSYCHO-SOCIAL AND OTHER SUPPORT TO RAPE VICTIMS (PHOTO: EMMANUEL TOBEY)

M.Y. a mother of eight (8) from Margibi County in central Liberia, has suffered the pain and trauma of having her 14-year old deaf and dumb “daughter” raped by a 25-year old man. The story of M.Y and what happened to the child under her care she calls “my daughter” is not uncommon in a fragile, post-conflict country like Liberia. Sexual and gender based violence like rape is widespread in the country, a country that has just celebrated a decade of peace but still grappling with the effect of 14 years of violent conflict where armed factions routinely employed rape as a weapon of war against civilians.

“It was on a weekend”, M.Y. clearly remembered that fateful day. “It was the last Saturday of the month (2012), a national cleaning day where community and neighborhoods mobilize to clean compounds, sewages and frontages. I teach my children to do their own washing and so my daughter had just gone to the neighbors to buy soap when she was attacked.” M.Y. explains with visible signs of pain and fear still in her eyes.

Highlights

  • Victims and families affected by sexual and gender based violence received a total of 953 support services in Bong, Lofa and Nimba Counties in Liberia in 2013.
  • Support provided for investigative and prosecutorial services in three counties in Liberia include 70 witnesses. They were provided with accommodation, transportation and meals to ensure their participation in trails.
  • The Crime Unit’s hotline services for sexual offences received 201 calls reporting rape or following up on previous cases.

As the tears drip from her eyes she added “The child was coming back with the soap and then suddenly a man snatched the soap from her and went into a nearby room.” The 14-year old vulnerable child could not detect the danger and so followed the man into the room to get back her soap. “As soon as she entered the room, the man attacked her, closed the doors, tore her clothes and raped her.” M.Y. said.

But before a special court to address sexual and gender based violence was set up in 2009, the case could have taken years to be concluded, with no psychological or legal support, the family would have very likely even dropped the case. But now in three months, the trial was concluded and the perpetrator sentenced to life in prison thanks to the special court – The Circuit Criminal Court E and other institutions to help fight the menace of sexual and gender based violence in Liberia.

With support from UNDP, the Government of Liberia also established the Victims Support Office, the SGBV Crimes Unit under the Ministry of Justice as well as the special court mentioned above. All these institutions are working together to ensure that victims are provided both legal and psycho-social support and ensure that perpetrators are brought to book speedily.

Victim Support Officer in the SGBV Crimes Unit, Loretta said “In the case of MY’s child, as soon the incident happened, the police informed us and sent her down to us. We provided psycho-social counseling to the victim and family. Through this counseling we identified other material, educational and medical needs which we provided. In some other instances, victims require relocation during trials to prevent harassment and attacks from powerful perpetrators.”

The aim of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Crimes Unit (SGBV-CU) of the Ministry of Justice aims to provide rapid investigative and prosecutorial response to complaints of sexual offences including rape and sexual assault. The SGBV Crime Unit has deployed a comprehensive approach in meeting the medical, psychological and justice needs of survivors of sexual and gender based violence.

Between May and September 2013, SGBV Crime Unit in the Justice hub in Gbarnga, a city Liberia, recorded a total of 115 sexual offences in Bong, Lofa and Nimba Counties. 46 cases were tracked and 69 additional cases referred for victims to receive further support. Among the 46 tracked cases were 43 statutory rape, 1 (one) gang rape, (1) one sexual assault and one (1) sodomy all in the three counties alone in Liberia out of a total of 15 counties.

In terms of prosecution, the Gbarnga hub also reported that eleven (11) rape cases were on trial, seven (7) convictions and three (3) acquittals. Twelve (12) Grand jury Hearings were held with all the defendants subsequently indicted.

The overall rate of case disposition for cases in all Circuit Courts remained extremely high. In 2010, according to the ‘End of Term Report and Analysis of Circuit Court and Cases Heard’, there were 557 cases listed in the dockets of the circuit courts in the 10 counties reviewed. By the conclusion of the court term, 26 had been tried, 50 had been otherwise disposed of, and 480 remained pending as 14 percent of docketed cases were tried or otherwise disposed of. This compares with 9 percent of cases tried or otherwise disposed of and 91 percent pending in the February 2010 term.

Said M.Y. “Although I felt extremely bad that this terrible thing ever happened to her, but I feel better because of the support from the crimes unit. They were very supportive and the police responded quickly. I also feel better that the girl is still committed to her education, she is studying hard and I am happy for her big dreams. She tells me that when she grows up, she wants to be like Mama Ellen (President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), to be an important person working in an office.”

With UNDP support and funds from Government of Australia, financial and technical support were provided to the SGBV Crimes Unit to strengthen its delivery and operational capacity through payment of salaries of staff as well as reproduction  of 500 copies of the Act establishing Criminal Court “E” for distribution to police officers, and legal practitioner.   The programme also provided logistical support in line with strengthening the Capacity of the SGBV Unit including a 40KVA generator which was procured to beef up electricity supply to enhance the work of the unit. Also several awareness raising programmes through radio and sometimes street drama and music has raised the level of awareness on SGBV and now most people call their special hotline when they are attacked or know someone who has been raped.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), rape-related incidents represented 68% of all reported cases of gender based violence. In the past four years, an average 55% of survivors who reported rape were less than 15 years old. Meanwhile, many cases continue to go unreported.

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