Sexual Violence in Liberia: End the Silent Epidemic

June 19, 2023

Sexual violence experienced during the war still permeates all levels of society.

UNDP Liberia

By Louis Kuukpen, UNDP Liberia’s Resident Representative a.i.

June 19 is observed globally as the Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict to raise awareness and strategize on ways to eliminate sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a severe violation of human rights that is considered a war crime and a crime against humanity. It is a harrowing reality that leaves a trail of physical and psychological scars. Liberia, which suffered from a brutal civil war from 1989 to 2003, knows the devastating consequences of sexual violence all too well. The World Health Organization in its 2002 World Report on Sexual Violence estimated that between 61% and 77% of women and girls in Liberia were raped during the war. 

Sexual violence experienced during the war still permeates all levels of society. Sexual violence cases hit a high of 2,708 in 2019, and 2,240 in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting His Excellency President George Weah to declare rape a national emergency. According to the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection’s annual statistical report on gender-based violence (GBV), some 1,975 cases were reported in 2022, 73.7% of which were rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violations. 

The prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence crimes has been remarkably inadequate due to a number of factors ranging from inadequate court infrastructure, inadequate staffing and technical capacity, and high caseloads. In 2020, the Independent National Commission on Human Rights reported that rapists continue to benefit from a deeply entrenched culture of impunity while survivors languish with slim hopes for justice. This culture combined with the trauma endured by survivors has created a climate of fear that perpetuates a vicious cycle of silence that allows the vice to flourish. Low accountability for sexual crimes has profound consequences - it undermines confidence in the justice system, deprives survivors of the closure they deserve, and discourages reporting of sexual crimes. 

National Efforts and Global Solidarity

Liberia is a party to numerous international human rights treaties and instruments including the UN Resolution 1325, which obligates the Government to address sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. The government, with support from international partners and civil society groups, passed the Rape Act (2005) and the Domestic Violence Act (2019), both of which increased the penalties for rape and other sexual offenses. The government also established a specialized court, Court E, to exclusively prosecute cases of sexual violence and developed a national action plan to prevent and respond to sexual and other forms of gender-based violence (SGBV). 

In 2019, the government welcomed the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative against SGBV which uses a transformative, evidence-based approach to address the unequal power dynamics between men and women to promote gender equality and women's empowerment. The initiative bolstered the Government of Liberia's capacity to deal with SGBV and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation. It has also established more robust institutional frameworks to enhance services provided to survivors. The programme has supported the establishment of the country’s first modern Forensic Pathology Laboratory to strengthen adjudication of SGBV cases using solid forensic, scientific evidence. 

The Spotlight Initiative also supported the construction of two new Women and Children Protection facilities at various police stations to provide survivors services in privacy and dignity. It also supported the rehabilitation of four more such facilities rendering them fully operational. To facilitate the prosecution of SGBV cases, the initiative reconstructed and equipped two circuit courts, and provided specialized and regular training to police officers, judiciary officials, and other criminal justice actors. 

After declaring rape, a national emergency in 2020, President George Manneh Weah appointed a special prosecutor for rape and established a national Sex Offender Registry and a special anti-SGBV presidential task force. The Government further allocated US$2 million for the roll-out of a roadmap (2020-2022) to end SGBV. 

The Government of Liberia, with further support from UNDP’s Rule of Law programme, which is funded by UNDP, the Embassy of Ireland, and the Peace-Building Fund is improving access to justice for survivors of GBV. The support prioritizes gender analysis and mainstreaming in the security sector and civil service capacity strengthening, understanding, and implementation of institutional gender policies. 

Civil society groups have also been instrumental in addressing sexual violence in Liberia working tirelessly to raise awareness about sexual violence, providing frontline support to survivors, and advocating for the rights of women and girls at the grass root levels. They also play a critical role in holding the government accountable for its response to sexual violence. 

Despite these noble efforts, much yet remains to be done. Liberia's judicial system still faces significant challenges in accessing adequate financial resources, specialized personnel, and an effective court network to effectively provide services to the people of Liberia. Overcrowded prison facilities, overloaded court dockets, expensive and lengthy litigation processes, and limited support for prosecution and rehabilitation of survivors frustrate their quest for justice. 

The government of Liberia must take deliberate efforts to sustain the gains made so far and continue to actively engage with international partners to leverage international expertise and resources to strengthen its response to sexual violence, promote best practices, and advocate for global norms and standards in addressing this heinous crime. 

Ending the Silent Epidemic

To break the cycle of sexual violence, there must be unwavering empowerment of survivors by ensuring their voices are heard, their stories are acknowledged, and their rights are protected. Legal reforms should prioritize survivor-centered justice and increase the prosecution of perpetrators.

Survivors of sexual violence require comprehensive support services to aid in their recovery and reintegration into society. The government and partners must invest in holistic programs that address the physical, psychological, and social needs of survivors, including accessible, affordable healthcare, trauma-informed counseling, vocational skills training, and educational opportunities. Collaboration amongst government agencies, civil society organizations, and international partners is crucial in establishing and sustaining these vital support networks.

It also requires a whole of society approach that involves men and women, and boys and girls in the fight against gender-based violence. Pervasive patriarchal norms can be changed by promoting gender equality and positive masculinity, where men and boys actively challenge harmful behaviors and attitudes; stand in solidarity with survivors, advocate for their rights, and hold other boys and men accountable. 

Liberia's journey toward justice and healing from the unseen scars of sexual violence requires a multi-faceted approach that prioritizes survivor-centered justice, comprehensive support services, and social change. By investing more in these areas and collaborating with international partners, Liberia can create a safer and more inclusive society, where survivors of sexual violence can find solace, justice, and hope. As we observe the International Day of Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, we should all be reminded that sexual violence even after conflict remains prevalent and must be adequately addressed to uphold the rights and dignity of every boy and girl, man and woman, and enable each to attain full actualization.

To this end, UNDP will continue to work with the Government and all other stakeholders to reduce the risk of sexual violence and support survivors as they seek justice. This includes supporting the strengthening of national systems to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, empowering survivors to access justice, and opening referral pathways to medical, psycho-social, and livelihood support services. Without our collective efforts, the relentless work and leadership of government, activists, and civil society groups, it would be impossible to combat the scourge of sexual violence, one of the most widespread violations of human rights.