Sexual Abuse Part of Liberia’s Post-War Reality

IRP Gatekeeper to Liberia Sunni Khalid reports on his recent trip in a week-long radio series for WYPR, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds"

Liberia 2010

By Sunni Khalid

January 12, 2011

Also appeared on WYPR, an affiliate of NPR

A group of young mothers at THINK, Inc, safe house in Paynesville, Liberia.

Sunni Khalid, IRP/WYPR

A group of young mothers at THINK, Inc, safe house in Paynesville, Liberia.

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In the concrete courtyard of a compound in Paynesville, on a muddy road just outside Liberia's capital, Monrovia, more than two dozen young women in dark blue uniforms sit a wide circle. Their expressions are downcast, even sullen. Most of the young women are teenagers, some as young as 13-years-old.

In the laps of more than a handful of the girls are children - their childen. They are the products of rape, in some cases, incest. These crimes were rare in Liberia before civil war ripped through the nation's social fabric.

"Are you ready to dance for Jesus? C'mon! "Yeah! Say, Yeah, yeah.'
Girls: "Yeah, yeah."

A short, brown-skinned woman with a broad, ready smile, calls out to the girls. Esther Harris is a counselor at THINK, Inc. Touching Humanity In Need of Kindness is an NGO, which operates a safe house in victims of sexual and gender-based violence, providing them with counseling, vocational education and HIV treatment.

"Put your hands up, clap your hands! (CLAP, CLAP) Stomp your feet! Stomp your feet! Clap your hands! C'mon, shout for Jesus. There's no one, there's no one like Jesus I walk, walk, walk, no one no one. I search, search, search."

The United Nations and others conducted random samples, which found that as many as 90-percent of women and young girls say they've been exposed to sexual violence. During the second civil war, many rape victims were young girls between the ages of six and 10, but some recent surveys show that most of the victims are now a few years older.

Rosanna Schaak, the executive director of THINK, Inc., says sexual abuse has become all too common.

"A lot of times, parents are out, you know, seeking out support for their families or survival. So, kids are left at home alone and neighbors, we notice neighbors and community members are most of the perpetrators, though we have a high incidence of family members being the perpetrators. So, it's either their step-dad, or their uncle, or cousin, or things like that."

Schaak, a small, serene woman, says most of the girls have fled their families.

Later, at a nearby medical clinic, Schaak gives a rundown on some of her clients.

"The girls that come to this clinic are from two-years-old up to adults. But the highest cases we get are between the ages of 13 to 17. At first, we were getting a lot of six-to-twelves, but now it's 13 to 17."

In a backroom is one of the recent victims, 14-year-old Gabbeh, who said her father raped her only a few days before. A thin girl, with dark brown skin, her thick brown hair in braids, Gabbeh talked to a small group of journalists.

"What happened to me?"
"My father went out with me."
"He went out with me."
"He went out with you?"
"You mean had sex with you?"

Gabbeh said her father, who left during the war, had returned to Liberia a few years ago. He never married her mother and had a wife in Nigeria, but he continued to live with Gabbeh, her mother and a younger sister. Four years ago, she said he started sexually abusing her.

"I was angry. I wanted to kill my father, to pressure him and kill him."
"What did he say to you after this?"
"He said I shouldn't tell anyone. If I tell anyone, he will kill me "

She said she told her mother about the abuse, but Gabbeh said she did nothing. Elizabeth Kekula, who helps run the clinic, says Gabbeh's mother's reaction is all too common.

"Most times, the parents always blame the survivor. They don't know that the perpetrator is to be blamed. The perpetrator family, they blame the survivor sometime, because they say the survivor did not say, No,' to what their son or husband wanted to do to that child."

At the clinic, Gabbeh was examined, counseled and starting taking a number of medicines, specifically anti-retrovirals, in case she was infected with HIV-AIDS. THINK says there have been three victims diagnosed with AIDS last year, ranging in age from three to 11-years-old.

Gabbeh's father was arrested - after she told her grandmother and an uncle. Arrests for rape are rare. It was not even considered a punishable offense until a rape law was passed through Liberia's Congress a few years ago. The maximum penalty is seven years.

THINK's Rosanna Schaak says despite efforts to increase public awareness about rape, cases like Gabbeh's, where the perpetrator is arrested, are still the exception.

"Culturally, people do not want to be blamed that they are the cause of somebody being sent to jail. And, so, we're looking for ways to get people to know that it's a crime against the state. And, so, even if they report the crime, they are not the cause. The person who reported the crime did an offense to the state."

The new government is also trying to change attitudes. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says Liberians return to the values they held before the civil wars.

"Rape was not part of any historical part of our society. But women who were used as sex slaves and that has now entered into part of the value system."

She says compulsory education of young girls may go a long way to reducing the impact of the civil wars on women. Keeping young girls in school, adds Johnson Sirleaf, may discourage many of them from entering into prostitution at an early age. Already, she says she's seeing signs of growing respect for the rights of women.

"When I go into the countryside, are more emboldened and empowered. They are assertive, whereas before they were always subdued in that environment."

Fourteen-year-old Gabbeh is says she's determined to seek justice for rape victims, like herself.

"I want to be a lawyer, a female lawyer, because what my father did to me, I was not like it. In school, when I go to school, I will become a female lawyer for my country."

That's a goal that doesn't seem as impossible as it might have a few years ago.

Sunni Khalid is a senior reporter in WYPR's News Department. He reported from Paynesville, Liberia, on a grant from the International Reporting Project (IRP). Tune in tomorrow, when we'll take a look at Liberia's former child soldiers in our series, "Starting From Less Than Zero: Liberia Rebuilds."