The Liberian government is stepping up its efforts to stop gender-based and sexual violence in response to recent protests against rape.
President George Weah released a statement on Sept. 11 that declared rape a national emergency in the country, according to Al Jazeera. He also introduced the first set of new measures to address the increase in violence against women. The measures include designating a specific prosecutor to handle rape cases and setting up a national sex offender registry. He is also creating a national security task force to handle sexual and gender-based violence and is allocating $2 million to address the issue.
Women’s rights advocates praised the move but emphasize the need to hold Weah accountable.
“We welcome the news that President Weah has acknowledged the scale and severity of sexual violence in Liberia and is introducing much-needed measures to address the problem,” Antonia Kirkland, global lead on access to justice at the organization Equality Now, told Global Citizen via email.
“We also applaud the thousands of women’s rights activists who have gone onto the streets to demand government action on the spiraling number of sexual and domestic violence case.”
The announcement comes after anti-rape campaigners staged a three-day protest in the city of Monrovia in August and called for Weah to respond to a petition to declare rape a national emergency. The protests, which sparked violent clashes with authorities, were in response to a 19-year-old boy allegedly performing female genital mutilation on a 3-year-old girl before planning to rape her, according to RFI.
Weah attended a sexual violence conference on Sept. 9, where he spoke on the rise of rape in Liberia. The increase in sexual violence most impacts children and young girls, he explained.
“This urgent call to action is in response to an 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," Weah said at the conference.
Weah went on to urge activists, local and international leaders to work with the Liberian government to stop gender-based violence and rape.
While Weah’s announcement is a step in the right direction, Equality Now’s Kirkland said “tangible action” will be crucial to change.
“This includes strengthening the justice system to ensure cases are investigated and prosecuted in a timely manner, and survivors have sufficient access to legal services and protections as well as health care and counseling,” she said. “In addition, all law enforcement officials dealing with allegations of sexual and gender-based violence should receive specialist training.”
Women and girls around the world face an increased risk of experiencing gender-based violence because they are more likely to be trapped at home with their abusers and lack resources to escape. Disruptions in social services and health care are making it even more challenging for survivors to seek assistance.
Sexual violence against women increased by 50% in Liberia during the pandemic. The Ministry of Justice recorded more than 600 reported rape cases between January and June alone, a rate close to reaching annual levels. Liberia recorded 803 rape cases in 2015, according to a UN report.
The prevalence of sexual violence in Liberia runs deep, with many women subjected to abuse during a 14-year civil war from 1989 to 2003. Perpetrators, however, still don’t tend to face consequences, even when victims know who they are, and only 2% of rape cases were convicted in 2019. The country currently doesn’t have a DNA machine, a key tool to help prosecute rape cases.
Ending sexual violence in Liberia will require a holistic approach, Kirkland stressed.
"It is important to note that top-down decrees can only go so far. Rape is a symptom of deep-rooted gender inequality and misogyny,” she said.
“To eradicate social norms and attitudes that normalize sexual violence and victim-blaming, the Liberian government needs to support activities that foster behavior change by challenging negative gender stereotypes.”
Educational campaigns on sexual and gender-based violence, clear consequences for perpetrating such crimes, and funding for women and children organizations are essential for progress, she added.