Lessons Learned in Liberia

Displaying pic3.jpgMonica Tulchinsky, ’13L*

In Liberia, over 70% of married women have been sexually assaulted by their husbands.[1] In the six months I spent working in the Liberian sex crimes unit, I never worked with one of them. In fact, I never saw any adult victims at all.

From December 2013 through June 2014, I served as a Carter Center Law Fellow in the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Crimes Unit (SGBVCU) of Liberia’s Ministry of Justice. My time at the SGBVCU was an incredible learning experience. Only a few months out of law school, I learned on the fly how to prosecute rape cases, interview witnesses of a high-profile gang rape, and effectively work with foreign witnesses in a human trafficking trial. I was basically transformed overnight into ADA Barba on Law & Order: SVU, except my office was hot as Hades, smelled like burning trash, and had a small mouse infestation. Most importantly, however, I learned how hard it is to prosecute rape in a country where women’s rights have not come far enough.

Liberia today is a post-conflict society. For fourteen years, from 1989-2003, Liberia suffered two horrific civil wars. These wars were very complex, but one thing remained constant: large-scale sexual violence. Statistics indicate 77% of Liberian women experienced sexual violence during the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars. These levels of sexual violence continue to affect Liberia today, which unfortunately suffers from one of the highest rates of rape in the world.[2]

Working in the sex crimes prosecution unit of the Liberian government opened my eyes to the many obstacles Liberia faces in combating post-conflict sexual violence. Liberia remains a deeply traditional society. It is widely believed that adult women who are not virgins cannot be raped, i.e. if a woman has consented to sex once in her life, she is then consenting to any sex thereafter. Because of this customary belief, the only victims who reported to my office were children. This customary belief has devastating consequences for Liberian women who are forced to suffer in silence, blame themselves, or both. This is not the only reason, however, that Liberian women do not report rape. Other problematic issues include cultural stigma and shame, fear that victims’ identities will not be protected, and reliance on traditional (tribal) methods as opposed to the formal criminal justice system. The latter (traditional/tribal dispute resolution) typically involves the defendant’s family paying the victim’s family a penance.

The statistics on sexual violence in Liberia confirm my anecdotal experience: rape and domestic violence account for over 70% of all serious crimes reported in Liberia, and in 2012, 92% of the cases of sexual violence recorded by Liberia’s Ministry of Gender involved children between the ages of three months to 17 years.[3]

Despite these challenges, there is a glimmer of hope: unlike many developing countries, Liberia has an incredibly robust legal framework. Forcible rape, by which a person has sexual intercourse with another person without his or her consent, is criminalized.[4] In addition, any form of sexual intercourse between a person over the age of 18 and a person under the age of 18 is rape. This law is stringent compared to most countries; even in the United States, statutory rape laws are more lenient.

The law, of course, is sometimes just words on a page. In a place where victims are shamed as much, if not more, than perpetrators, it is difficult to enforce even the most robust anti-rape framework. My hope for Liberia, however, lies not in the law but in the people. While it is true that the Liberian government is infamously corrupt, I encountered so many dedicated police, prosecutors, social workers, and advocates who could not be more married to the cause of improving the lives of the women of Liberia. Despite the obstacles—and in a country like Liberia, there are many—these individuals continued to fight every single day to ensure the safety and healing of survivors. I will never stop admiring those individuals, and I will always think of them as I continue to fight the same fight—with many fewer obstacles, mind you—here at home.

***

Monica Tulchinsky is an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) Disability Advocacy Project. Previously, she was a volunteer attorney with the Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project where she provided legal assistance to survivors of human trafficking. She is a 2013 graduate of W&L Law.

References:

[1] See Tackling Liebria’s High Rape Rate, IRIN News (July 18, 2014), http://www.irinnews.org/report/100364/tackling-liberia-s-high-rape-rate.

[2] See id.

[3] See United Nations Development Assistance Framework 2013-2017, United Nations Country Team (2013), http://www.unicef.org/liberia/UNDAF_2013-2017.pdf.

[4] Liberian Code of Laws Revised, Volume IV, Title 26, §§ 14.70(1), 14.70(1)(a)(ii)

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