Monrovia – With Liberia’s recent partial lockdown and increased economic challenges intensified by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, experts warn that the country may also be facing a serious “shadow crisis”, in the form of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).
Report By: Lisa Tenneh Diasay, LMD Responsible Health Reporting Fellow
In the four-month period between March and June this year, there were a total of 535 cases of SGBV reported across Liberia – with 239 SGBV cases recorded in March alone, 128 in April, 104 in May, and 64 cases in June, according to statistics obtained from the Ministry of Gender, Children & Social Protection (MoGCSP).
On the surface, these statistics appear quite similar (if not even slightly improved) when compared to the number of SGBV cases reported between January and May last year (2019) – a five-month period, in which a total of 779 SGBV cases were reported across the country. According to the Gender Ministry, those cases included 513 reports of rape, 25 reports of gang rape, 122 reports of physical assault (115 females and seven males), and 119 sexual assaults (females) – with the vast majority of these cases (630 out of the total 779) being reported in Montserrado County specifically.
However, while a direct comparison of statistics from 2019 to 2020 does not show any major “spike” or increase in reported cases, gender and protection experts in the country still warn that the official numbers may not tell the entire story.
SGBV has been an age-old problem in Liberia. As a matter of fact, it is one of the most serious issues confronting women and girls in the country – yet, many incidents of sexual or gender-based violence remain unreported or compromised due to the lack of information and resources for survivors (and their families) to pursue their cases.
One Gender Coordinator working in Grand Gedeh County says that the country’s high occurrence of SGBV incidents is linked to poverty, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 heath crisis, and economic challenges associated with it.
Wallace K. Barway claims that many parents cannot meet the needs and demands of their family, which leads their children to fend for themselves – leading them to spend more time out in the streets or in the bush, and thus exposing them to increased risk of experiencing possible Sexual and Gender Based Violence in their communities.
Other experts have stated their belief that there may have been a recent increase in SGBV cases in the country – though these cases have gone largely unreported – exacerbated by the partial lockdown imposed by the government, to curb the spread of the virus.
Attorney Mmonbeydo Nadine Joah, Executive Director of the Organization for Women and Children (ORWOCH), agrees that it is possible that there may have been an increase in recent SGBV cases as a result of the lockdown – adding that there have also been concerns that cases of SGBV are actually being underreported during the pandemic. In response, Atty. Joah is calling for a uniform system that will enhance the tracking and recording of SGBV cases across the country.
“We don’t know what is happening under COVID-19 because there is no sufficient data; we cannot go into every home and community to find out what is happening there,” she explained. “Before the lockdown, we saw the number of cases coming up, but with the lockdown a lot of abuses have been happening and we only managed to uncover a few.”
In the last few weeks of August, there have been several cases of rape reported from Grand Cape Mount County. In one instance, an 8-year-old girl had her womb destroyed after she was raped by a 19-year old man, according to doctors. She was transferred to Monrovia after the local health center in the area could not render her advanced care.
Elsewhere in the county, a 13-year-old was allegedly raped in Sinje town and an eight-year-old was allegedly raped in Tewor District. There were also five other cases in the last two months, with two involving 15 and 14-year-old girls who were reportedly raped on July 26 during the Independence Day Celebration.
Ne-Suah Beyan-Livingston, Director of Rescued Abandoned and Children in Hardship (REACH), said Liberia is not in good standing when it comes to rape and SGBV-related issues. She describes the situation as “terrible and heartbreaking”.
Making a comparative analysis on SGBV cases reported in 2019 and the ones reported so far in 2020, Madam Livingstone said it is “unimaginable” that vulnerable people are being preyed upon during the pandemic, which is already imposing hardship for vulnerable communities.
Despite the 2005 Rape Law and the special court established to fast track rape cases, she says the country is still seeing increases in SGBV incidents.
Livingstone asserted that “it’s not that the Law is not working, but it is weak”, adding that the abandonment of cases by parents of survivors due to lack of resources is also a major concern.
In her opinion, she suggests that perpetrators, who are found guilty by the court, should be castrated and that a law be enacted to penalize law enforcement officers soliciting bribes from survivors to investigate their complaints.
But Tamba Johnson, the head of He4She Crusaders Liberia, says that to fight SGBV, perpetrators, community and traditional leaders must be engaged in communities and schools.
He argued that 80 to 85 percent attention and emphasis is being directed to survivors, with little or no focus on the perpetrators who are the root cause of the problem, adding that “when perpetrators are engaged they would come to realize that the act is deadly and wrong”.
He continued: “The sooner we start to engage boys and men from the primary, secondary levels, they will start to see women as their partners and not their property.”
Although the coronavirus pandemic has created challenges that may have contributed toward a risk of increased SGBV cases, women’s rights activists have also pointed out that issues undermining the response against SGBV were existing long before the current health crisis began.
Attorney Margaret Nigba, Executive Director of Her Voice Liberia, says persistent non-support and internal human trafficking are major causes for the increase in rape cases.
“Most families are apart and out for breadwinning, while people do internal trafficking by assuring families of better care for their children who end up in the streets as breadwinners, and at the end of the day children are made vulnerable to abuses and are violated,” explains Atty. Nigba, whose organization provides legal aid, psychosocial and medical support for survivors of SGBV.
She is, however, confident that the number may go down when the Women and Children Protection Section (WACOS) of the Police is properly supported, and the Ministry of Justice hires more lawyers to prosecute SGBV cases.
“We need support from the government and international partners to get more safe homes, support existing safe home structures, provide medical support to survivors and ensure they are not relocated into the same community where they were violated,” she said.
The 2020/2021 draft budget shows approximately a million dollar increment in budgetary allocations for the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, which is at US$2,204,150 as compared to previous budget year of US$1,677,005.
Many advocates of women issues like Atty. Nigba have lauded the increment in the budget but are urging that more needs to be done as the Legislature proceeds with the proper allocation during the budget hearings, which is expected to continue for the next week.