Liberia: "We Cannot Celebrate when Women Still Face Threat of Violence"

Former Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


.. .. former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on International Women’s Day

The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development (EJS Center) has called off its annual International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations, citing “the recent disheartening spike in gender-based violence in Liberia."

This year’s IWD celebrations, themed #BreaktheBias, coincide with the EJS Center’s second anniversary. 

“We had planned to continue the tradition of celebrating International Women’s Day with an event entitled Women in the Grassroots: Liberia In Focus, a facilitated discussion with women leading non-governmental organizations in Liberia,” the Center explained in a statement released on Tuesday, March 8.  “However, given the recent disheartening spike in gender-based violence in Liberia, we have decided that we cannot celebrate while our mothers, sisters, and daughters continue to face the threat of violence. At present, Liberia ranks 175th out of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Gender Inequality Index, demonstrating the significant gap between Liberian women and men.” 

The statement also quotes Former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, responding to the recent surge in gender-based violence, in her own words: “We cannot be celebratory when our Liberian sisters are still facing the threat of violence. Instead, let us break the bias in our homes, schools, universities, communities, courtrooms, and institutions that perpetuates violence against women and girls, and stands in the way of its eradication.”

Meanwhile, President George Weah while celebrating International Women’s Day, in the presence of his predecessor Sirleaf, promised stringent measures to help tackle the surge in Sexual and Gender-based Violence against women in the country.

“I will be reviewing the progress made by the Sexual and Gender-based Violence taskforce and will take stronger measures to bring this national strategy under control, President Weah said.

President Weah then added that Liberia celebrated international women's day under difficult circumstances with an increase in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence.

 “I encouraged Liberian women to have positive thoughts about themselves and don’t give up because if giving up were an option he would not be president of Liberia. I want to express how proud I am of the strength and resilience of Liberian women. You are still strong despite the challenges that you face. You are collectively shattering the glass ceiling. We will continue to work hard to ensure that women are empowered,” President Weah said.

At Tuesday’s celebrations, President Weah also paid tribute to his Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, all-female government ministers, women achievers in the country, and former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in whose honor he named the Ministerial Complex.

The issue of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, particularly rape in Liberia has been on the increase despite thousands of Liberians protesting against the crime in 2020 in a bid to draw local and international attention to the country’s alarming rate of sexual assault.

Rape has been a long-standing concern and a United Nations report in 2016 recorded 803 rape cases the previous year and found only 2 percent of sexual violence cases led to a conviction. Harrowing tales of sexual violence against girls as young as three years old are nothing new. 

It is an issue that is among the many crimes that are the result of the legacy of the country’s 14-year civil war between 1989 and 2003 when rape was commonplace. 

Moreover, a heavily underfunded and weak judicial system and the culture of impunity continue to fan the rape epidemic. Alternative justice for rape victims in a highly traditional and patriarchal society includes traditional courts spearheaded by community leaders that have in most cases ruled in favor of offenders. 

In  2020, President Weah declared rape a national emergency and ordered new measures to tackle the problem after a recent spike in the number of cases in the West African state. 

In that same year, Margaret Taylor, the director of Liberia’s Women Empowerment Network, said her NGO had recorded 600 cases of rape between June and August. According to her, the number was up from between 80 and 100 cases in May.

But since then,  the President has done little to fulfill his pledge of having a special prosecutor for rape in Liberia, as well as set up a national sex offender registry.  And the government’s “national security task force” on sexual and gender-based violence is yet to succeed in terms of prosecution and conviction of the alleged perpetrators.

The Weah administration has purchased a DNA machine to fast-track the investigation and prosecution of rape cases, but since the machine arrived at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in 2021, it is yet to be used due to the lack of skilled medical professionals to operate it.

The EJS Center said it acknowledges that some important steps have been taken over recent years to address gender-based violence in Liberia. “For example, the Domestic Violence Act was signed into law in 2019 after being tabled in 2016. 

The Act provides a comprehensive definition of domestic violence, which acknowledges the many forms it can take. But more must be done to eradicate violence against women and girls in Liberian society. Further progress is needed through multiple channels including policymaking, legislation, grassroots engagement, advocacy, and community-led initiatives. 

"Women public leaders and civil society activists should continue to steer these efforts, building on their years of work on this pressing issue. However, sustainable progress requires the commitment and support from male allies—at the community level and the highest levels of government," the center added. 

To celebrate International Women’s Day last year, the EJS Center held a panel discussion entitled Amujae Leaders: Liberia In Focus, which focused on women’s political leadership in Liberia. “This year, there are many achievements to celebrate at the EJS Center, including our two cohorts of Amujae Leaders, the successful #HaveHerBack Campaign, and the release of our report on Mapping Progress in Liberia: The 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.”

However, the EJS Center’s Executive Director, Dr. Ophelia I. Weeks, notes with emphasis that “on this 2022 International Women’s Day, the EJS Center recognizes that this issue is critical and cannot be dismissed. We must work harder to combat gender-based violence, hold those responsible accountable, and create a safer society for women and girls.”

Founded in 2018 as the legacy project of the first democratically elected woman president in Africa, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the EJS Center aims to be a catalyst for change across Africa by helping unleash its most abundant untapped power — its women. It officially launched on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020. Through a unique blend of programming, advocacy, research, and exhibitions, the Center advances women’s public leadership and social development on the continent.

In a related development, President  Weah then endorsed recommendations by speakers at Tuesday’s event who highlighted the need to increase the number of women participating in politics, saying that women’s political participation is the key to breaking barriers and promoting gender equality and sustainable tomorrow.

“We will continue to do our part in ensuring a free and just society for all regardless of your gender,” he said.

He added that Liberia can only achieve maximum development if women have equal rights, adding: “As president, you can be assured that your voice will continue to be heard and rights respected."