Martu Yardolo had just turned 17 when she said she received a drug hidden in a drink and was raped by three men. It was his birthday night. Yardolo was looking forward to partying with his friends. Instead, it ended in violence that destroyed his world.
Commentary by Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh with New Narratives
Martu, whose real name is withheld due to stigma, says she was betrayed by a friend from her Mount Barclay community near Monrovia, who orchestrated the rape with two friends. Since the rape – in 2021 – the perpetrators have been on the run.
Beaten and suffering from internal injuries, Martu was treated at a local clinic. His family was determined to hold the perpetrators to account and therefore reported the attack to the local police. But since then, no arrests have been made. The family tirelessly followed up with the police and the community, but to no avail.
Martu’s uncle is still burning with rage. He says his niece’s rape and the ongoing number of rapes in Liberia are a “silent war” against Liberian children.
“Some men are just plain bad. How will a man who is in his right mind rape a child of two, five or six years old?” he asks, shaking with anger. (His name is withheld to protect the identity of the family.) “For me, I want to agree with the Chief of Staff (Armed Forces of Liberia) that the rapists should be sentenced to death. This will end the men who rape children and for me, it will be fine.
Martu’s uncle is not alone. It’s been nearly two years since President George Weah declared rape a national emergency in September 2020 after a series of horrific cases made headlines across the country. The president unveiled a plan designed to provide relief to Liberian girls and women, deter perpetrators and expedite the adjudication of cases.
It has designated a specific prosecutor to handle rape cases, set up a national sex offender registry and a national task force to handle sexual and gender-based violence cases. It allocated $2 million to combat rape and other forms of gender-based violence.
But as the second anniversary of his declaration approaches, little has changed for the children of Liberia.
The actual number of women and children raped in Liberia is not available because most rapes go unreported. But girls under 15 bear the heaviest burden according to data collected by the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. Of the cases reported to sexual violence clinics in Montserrado, the largest county by population, seven in ten were perpetrated on girls under the age of 18.
There was a slight drop in cases reported to the ministry in 2021, possibly due to Covid-19 lockdowns, but data from the first quarter of this year suggests 2022 is on track to be one of worst years on record for the genre. violence.
A sense of crisis plays out in the headlines. A Front Page Africa report in February on the rape of a three-year-old child by his 17-year-old neighbor was a blow to defenders, especially the victim’s grandmother, herself a human rights defender. the child. But this case was just one of more than 20 cases of child rape that were reported in the media in the space of three months.
Whether this reflects an increase in reporting or an increase in attacks is unknown. What is clear is that the scourge of rape continues to afflict the children of Liberia despite the efforts of Presidents Sirleaf and Weah and the international community.
As Liberians, we must ask ourselves an important question: why do our men continue to rape children?
Rape was widely used as a weapon of war by all factions in Liberia’s civil wars that ended in 2003. Children were not spared. Child rape was motivated by false traditional beliefs that it would bring success. The violence continued in the decade that followed. A 2016 report by the United Nations Human Rights and Protection Service found that rape and domestic violence were the second most frequently reported serious crimes in Liberia. The report called the number of reported rapes in the 15 counties “extremely high.”
Experts have given a series of reasons why the rape continues. The traditional belief that sex with children brings good luck is still widely cited.
“I get confused when I hear that having sex with a child brings good luck,” says Gloria Nancy, program coordinator at Action Aid Liberia, a women’s and children’s rights organization. “What kind of luck is that?” It’s just grossness and it’s the mental perception that perpetrators hold that we continue to see rape increase from top to bottom.
Men interviewed by Front Page Africa/New Narratives said they were unable to explain the actions of the rapists.
“I find it hard to understand why a 40-year-old man would rape a child when at that age he should be having grandchildren, so I don’t think they’re doing it out of feelings,” said Marcus Garwhere, 35 years old, a young intellectual from the Chinese Fence Community of Duazon.
“Hearing news of rape cases every day scares me very much because I have a daughter. Rape has the propensity to take away a girl’s future and it causes a lot of trauma to the point that it creates the animosity in a girl’s heart against men There is no justification for men to rape.
Rape is a second degree felony in Liberian law carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. In 2006, when the government passed the Rape Act, it also set up a dedicated court known as “Criminal Court E” to expedite the prosecution of sexual offense cases. But securing convictions in cases of rape and other gender-based violence remains a major hurdle.
Delays force victims to settle out of court
Two out of three rape cases have not yet been brought to court, while 73% of GBV cases end without result. Either final decisions are delayed indefinitely, or victims drop their cases due to threats from perpetrators’ families, difficulty obtaining testimonies and court delays.
Women’s protection advocates say that because of these delays, the majority of cases are settled between families, out of court, and that low conviction rates undermine the deterrent effect of prosecutions. If a potential rapist doesn’t fear being punished, they are less likely to stop.
“The whole problem with the justice system is that the rape law is not fully enforced and as a result we continue to see acts of rape,” said Elizabeth Johnson, national director of Action Aid.
Martu’s family faced immense pressure to settle the case privately. Although they knew the identity of the perpetrators, they spent months trying to get a response from the police. The ringleader’s family has asked to meet with his parents to apologize. Yardolo’s parents agreed to hear the apology as long as the perpetrators were present. They hoped to set a trap and have the men arrested by the police. But they didn’t show up.
One controversy with rape law is the fact that it is a no-bail offence. Just being accused of rape will send a perpetrator to jail awaiting trial, which can take years. Critics say it’s unfair. This discourages survivors from filing complaints and undermines public support for prosecutions.
Lawyer Yah Parwon says the law must remain strict.
“If we look at the level of impunity for perpetrators of violence against women, you can’t say you want to deal with something serious and then say water it down,” Parwon says. “Why should we care about the harshness of rape law rather than worrying about the systems that cause rape or even supporting the justice system to have what it means to prosecute rape? The problem is holistic”.
Another obstacle to convictions has been the lack of forensic evidence. For decades, police in other countries have been able to match DNA samples taken from semen left on the bodies of survivors. In March 2021, President Weah and Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor hosted a major press event to unveil two new DNA machines at JFK Hospital. But eighteen months later, the machines are still idols.
“The DNA machines we have here at JFK are not yet functional and the necessary modalities are still being worked out through a collaborative effort by the Department of Health and JFK to make the equipment functional,” said said James Crayton, public relations manager for the hospital. But he promised it is a priority and will happen “soon”.
A DNA machine purchased under the previous Sirleaf administration was never used either.
As governments and courts fail to protect girls in Liberia, Deputy Minister for Children and Social Welfare in the Ministry of Gender Maminah Carr Gaye has called on families to do what the government is failing to do. did not.
“The rape situation is troubling and very difficult. It is difficult because it happens directly in the houses, the neighbors also rape the children and the fathers of their neighbors,” said Asst. Min. Gaye in an interview with New Narratives. “The truth is, gender ministry cannot be in rooms, homes, and everywhere at all times. That’s why we all have to fight it.
Martu continues to pay a heavy price. She suffers from trauma and cannot live in the community where the rape took place because of the stigma she now faces. She and her family are still waiting for justice. Martu’s uncle says his only prayer now is to see his niece’s three rapists pay for their crimes in court.
This report was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of Investigating Liberia. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the content of the story.