By Margaret Muna Nigba
After 11 years of marriage, Watta’s* (not her real name) husband threw her out of their home. He ordered her to stay away and blocked her access to everything they jointly worked for — two houses, one truck, one taxi, one minimart and an artisanal gold mining business.
One week after she moved to her mother’s house with her two children, fire gutted the house. Watta and her children, who had narrowly escaped, had nowhere to go. They slept in the street until they were referred to our Legal Mobile Clinic. After months of delayed justice, we won Watta a divorce settlement where she received alimony of $5000 and recovered her properties.
In my eight years of being an attorney who specializes in representing victims of sexual and gender-based violence, I know that Watta was lucky to get judicial redress. Most cases do not even reach the courtroom. This is a consequence of the patriarchal Liberian society in which domestic violence against women is normalized. In fact, the Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE) index revealed that in Liberia, two out of ten of its citizens think domestic violence is acceptable.
In 2021, 496 domestic violence cases were reported to the Liberia National Police. As alarming as this figure is, it is an understatement of the real magnitude of the situation. Only 11% of these cases were tried and concluded in courts and 65% of the cases were labeled as “resolved”. This often means that the cases were flawed, and perpetrators walked away. They are enabled by investigating officers who perceive such cases as a family matter and urge those involved to “resolve” them privately — as families or friends. This absolves perpetrators of any responsibility, and they are free to repeat the offenses.
While it could be argued that there has been progress in ending gender-based violence in Liberia, through mainstreaming domestic violence into our national conversation, and the recent passing of the Domestic Violence Act in 2019, the law and policy framework remains narrow. It does not adequately protect victims and end the scourge of violence.
There are no dedicated legal, medical, psychosocial services or shelters for domestic violence survivors. Additionally, safe avenues for women to report domestic violence cases — such as hotlines — are nonexistent.
Police need adequate training to recognize domestic violence as a crime and not merely a family dispute. The Domestic Violence Act itself falls short of prescribing in-camera trials — which are trials held in private before a judge, to shield survivors from stigma, reprisals, fear, and victim-blaming. Some survivors of domestic violence become disabled as a result of the offense against them, and in such cases the domestic violence law does not compel the perpetrators to pay reparations to the survivors.
The National Legislature must therefore amend the Domestic Violence Act to compel closed-door trials for domestic violence cases. The law must additionally make convicted perpetrators pay reparations to survivors made disabled or dependent as a result of the offenses.
There is also a need to adopt policy that would develop a clear pathway for domestic violence survivors to report cases, and seamlessly follow through to the point of prosecution. This must include the establishment of one stop centers — where domestic survivors can timely receive medical and psychosocial treatment, and police can easily gather evidence. This will allow cases to be effectively processed to finality. People who have experienced domestic violence also need safe houses which shield them from perpetrators’ reprisals.
Inadequate laws make for bad laws. The Liberian government must urgently expand the legal and policy framework on gender-based violence for the ultimate protection of its women and girls.
Margaret Muna Nigba is a public interest lawyer and the founder of the only mobile legal clinic in Liberia. She is an Aspen New Voices 2022 Fellow.