This week I will focus on Liberia as a case study on sexual violence in a post-conflict state. Liberia’s civil war lasted for 14 years, until 2003, and sexual violence similar to that in Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, and especially Sierra Leone was rampant. Amnesty International reported that 60-70 percent of Liberia’s population suffered from sexual violence during the war, and while some men suffered from sexual violence as well, gender-based sexual violence against women was particularly widespread .
In the aftermath of war, Liberia has in many ways been an example in terms of rebuilding in the wake of conflict. Over the past few years it has made great strides in improving infrastructure, public services, the economy, and respect for the rule of law. Liberia has tackled corruption head-on and placed emphasis on reconstruction and reconciliation. As Hilary Clinton said during her visit to Liberia in August of 2009, Liberia is now “a model of successful transition from conflict to post-conflict, from lawlessness to democracy, from despair to hope.”  Much of this reform is to the credit of new leadership in Liberia under the country’s first female head of state, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Inaugurated in 2006, President Sirleaf has been a champion of anti-corruption efforts and is widely admired.
However, despite Liberia’s successes and to many people’s surprise, Liberia has continued to suffer from extremely high rates of sexual violence. After reading several staggering articles, one of which reported that domestic violence affects 55% of women in Liberia, I began to wonder if rates of violence against women tend to stay high after conflict, and our speaker this week as well as other articles corroborated my suspicion . Gender-based violence tends to remain at very high rates for years following conflict. The psychology and explanation for this trend is undoubtedly complex, but I imagine has to do with many men’s need to re-assert control and power after having been powerless for so long. I also imagine that this trend is related to the general lack of stability that often plagues post-conflict societies for decades.
Fortunately, Liberia has taken several steps to address sexual violence in the wake of conflict, and many of these have been spearheaded by President Sirleaf. One article applauded the wide variety of angles from which Liberia is confronting sexual violence; Liberia has passed new laws, created safe houses for women, and increased monitoring and awareness of rape as a crime . Fewer than 20 African countries have passed laws addressing rape, and in 2006 Liberia became one of them (although marital rape was not included) . Abusers found guilty of rape may be sentenced to life in prison. UNMIL and a local NGO have also opened a safe house for victims of sexual violence. Liberia has established new courts specifically charged with hearing sexual and gender-based violence cases . And in 2008, Liberia adopted a plan on gender-based violence and received funding from the UN for its implementation .
I am particularly interested in following President Sirleaf’s presidency over the coming years, as she is not only the first female head of Liberia but also the first female head of state in Africa. She has already made sexual violence a focus – an incredibly encouraging sign coming from an African government. However, sexual violence continues to affect women throughout Liberia in terrible, tragic ways, and more must be done to protect them and help victims recover and rebuild.