Protecting girls and women from sexual violence in post-war Liberia

News and Press Release
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By David Koch

The World Congress III against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, set for 25-28 November 2008 in Brazil, aims to promote international cooperation for more effective action on sexual exploitation. Here is one in a series of related stories.

MONROVIA, Liberia, 14 November 2008 - Peace came to Liberia in 2003, after 14 years of brutal, devastating civil war. Since then, progress to rebuild the country has been significant: the restoration of infrastructure, public services, the economy and the rule of law is well under way.

Despite positive strides towards a restored society, sexual violence against women and children remains a central reality of life in Liberia, where the United Nations maintains its second largest peacekeeping mission (UNMIL) anywhere.

Children concerned about security

According to police statistics, week after week, rape - especially of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 - is the most reported crime.

Sexual violence occurs across all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds; women may be socialized to accept, tolerate or rationalize it. A weak justice system, the lingering violence of the war and an unwillingness to report instances compound the situation. No one is safe from assault.

The UNMIL Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Rule of Law, Henrietta Mensu-Bonsu, said starkly: "The children of Liberia have indicated that their one main concern is security and that they are not safe anywhere - not in the home, not at church, not in the mosque, not in the classroom. They are vulnerable everywhere because so many different groups prey on them."

Help for victims of violence

Victims of sexual violence suffer health and psychological burdens that affect every aspect of life.

One 15-year-old told of a horrific attack in her own home, perpetrated by a friend of her father. "He called me in his room," she recalled. "He held me and lay me down on the bed. I began to shout. He had a knife beside him. He said that if I talked he would kill me. He then put a cloth in my mouth. I was fighting to get out."

To help young girls and women reclaim their lives, UNICEF supports a safe-house programme that provides food, medicine and counselling.

"We eat three times a day. The counsellors play with us and joke with us. We play baseball, we play tag. It's a place where we all can be happy," said the thankful 15-year-old.

UNICEF Representative in Liberia Rozanne Chorlton said the safe house is "a confidential location where girls who have been badly sexually exploited can be taken and cared for, and given the kind of intense counselling and psychosocial support they need - until they can re-grasp their lives and restore their dignity and self confidence enough to be able to go back to their communities."

'Zero tolerance to rape'

Since the inauguration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa's first female head of state in 2006, the issue of sexual exploitation and violence towards women and children has become even more salient.

"The President has made it very clear that the international community, together with the people of Liberia, need to work together to combat sexual and gender-based violence," said the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Recovery and Governance at UNMIL, Jordan Ryan. "Courts have to work, prosecution has to work [and] people have to have a zero tolerance to rape."

Today, as Liberia struggles to recover from its violent past, sexual violence and exploitation is under attack from all angles. Safe houses, new laws, new partnerships, increased monitoring and additional public awareness of the crime are making concrete inroads to create a safer, more prosperous future for all Liberia's people.