16 Days Campaign Inspires Mass Action to End Child Rape in Liberia

A few yards away from the home of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—in the Fish Market Community—men, women and children gathered for a parade as part of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence campaign. The atmosphere was mixed with excitement and grief as the campaigners marched during the rally, which can be recorded as the first massive anti-rape awareness campaign in Liberia. In the midst of the crowd, a group of young men and women carried 10 caskets as tribute to deceased child rape victims.

Between January and September 2013, ten out of approximately 1,300 children raped during that nine month period died as a result of that attack, and the survivors are left with emotional and psychological scars that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. These disturbing realities have drawn the attention of the Liberian Government, civil society, and international partners with women-led civil society organizations leading the crusade to demand that the government takes more concrete actions to prevent further rapes and provide justice when rapes occur.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence campaign is an annual event observed around the world from November 25th to December 10th to foster solidarity, engage leaders, and create public awareness on violence perpetrated against women.

With funds from the CSML advocacy grants program, three CSO partners collaborated to design and execute a chain of activities to generate massive community support, increase awareness and offer a call to action to the Liberian Government. They were WONGOSOL, which led the group, the Liberia Women Media Action Committee (LIWOMAC), and Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL). They joined other Liberian women’s organizations with funding from Womankind Worldwide and other donors.

The women’s consortium organized sit-ins at strategic government ministries, conducted a day-long Women’s Rights Summit, held a press conference, printed posters with anti-rape messages, launched and held a week-long dedicated rape awareness discussion on the Liberia Women Democracy Radio and mobilized citizens for a massive street parade. A key message from the women during the campaigning underscored that child rape is “devilish” and an attack on the “future of womanhood in Liberia”. They also demanded speedy trials of rape cases and the institution of proper mechanisms to reduce rape and other forms of violence against women and girls in the country. For many of the female participants the activities were inspiring but also brought up dark memories, as many women participating in the activities were directly or indirectly victims of sexual violence.

This past year the campaign in Liberia was held under the theme of “Men as agents of change, end violence against women and children”, drawing huge support from the male community and reinforcing advocacy around the issue of child rape. Thousands of men were present for the parade held on December 2nd, marching in solidarity with their female peers to raise awareness and demand accountability.

Also joining the parade was Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who marched with other foreign diplomats at the head of the parade, for a temporary period. Later, the President caught up with the parade at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium in downtown Monrovia where she spoke, condemning rapists of children and resounded a warning that perpetrators would not go unpunished.

President Sirleaf’s government has made several strides towards reducing, if not ending child rape and other forms of violence against women and girls in Liberia. Most recently, the government entered into an important agreement with a number of international and local partners to establish and operate “One Stop Centers” in five locations in Montserrado County, where rape survivors can access legal, medical and psychosocial counseling services. A forensic lab was also set up in Monrovia to conduct testing for rape cases and provide the necessary information to convict perpetrators. In 2008, the government built Criminal Court E in the national courthouse specifically to fast track rape cases, and embarked on a joint effort with the UN to tackle widespread gender-based violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse.

In spite of these gains, much more still needs to be done. According to the rape law approved in December 2005, perpetrators of rape can face between ten years to life imprisonment for committing rape. In practice, however, rape continues to be committed with impunity, with very few cases actually reaching the court system. Barriers created by inadequate services, interference from traditional leaders, poor preservation of evidence, and further dehumanization of survivors due to stigma, are significant problems that are difficult to overcome. Equally, it is critical to mobilize resources, maintain solidarity among women civil society organizations, and promote community ownership in the fight to end rape in particular, and violence against women in general.


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