Mary Marie, 13, was born blind but her parents wanted her to have a future like any other child. So, they sent her to a boarding school for the blind. They wanted her to learn the braille before enrolling her in a normal academic program. If they had known she would be at risk of being abused, they would not have sent her there.
On this particular day in May last year, while Marie (not her real name) was performing her chores in the school’s dormitory, she claims one of her teachers dragged her into a corner and raped her. Marie says she recognized the teacher by his voice. “[He] held me by my neck and did what he wanted to, warning me if he heard the story anywhere, I was going to regret,” Marie tells the Daily Observer. She claims the teacher who allegedly raped her was asked to stay away from the school temporarily. She says when the incident took place, the proprietor also told her not to tell her parents, warning she would be expelled.
That was not the end to Marie’s nightmare, though. Two months later, she began a relationship with another man who lived nearby her school. She says she had consensual sex with and got pregnant for this man, who her mother says is in his 20s.
Under the Rape Law, sex with a minor under the age of 18 is considered statutory rape and first-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The law defines rape is an intentional penetration of the vagina or anus of another person with the penis, other parts of the body or an object without their consent.
A case involving victims 18 years and above is a second-degree felony, punishable by not less than a 10-year prison term. The law denies suspects bail (an amendment to this portion of the law to allow suspect bail is before the legislature), and there is a special division at the Liberia National Police (LNP) responsible for cases on women and children in addition to the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.
While sitting on the back porch of her parents’ home with her two-month-old baby in her arms, Marie regrets getting pregnant after nearly completing her brail lessons. “I was left with a semester to complete my braille exercise to start normal school, but now I have to sit down,” she says, fighting back tears.
Hundreds of girls and women are raped each year in Liberia since the end of the country’s civil war in 2003. Statistics from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection further show that 682 cases reported in 2014, the same year a deadly Ebola epidemic ravaged the country. That figure increased to 774 in 2015. In the first nine months of 2017, 506 rape cases were reported, with 475 of those victims being children, like Marie. And according to a LNP data for 2018 and up to February 2019, 247 rape cases were reported.
Despite these huge numbers of cases, only a few suspects are convicted. Statistics from the Ministry of Gender and Social Protection for 2018 show that, of the 276 rape cases reported, only 21 suspects have been tried, convicted, and sentenced.
Owens P. Flomo, Associate Judge of the Ganta Magisterial Court in Nimba County, blames pretrial detention for the low number of convictions. He says rape suspects are often freed after the statutory 30-day period if they do not see a judge.
Flomo says in most instances, prosecutors in criminal cases not pursue cases due to too many legal obligations or lack of substantial evidence to prove their cases.
In those instances, he says, where prosecutors delay their cases against suspects, the court is left with no other alternative, but to dismiss those cases and set free the detainees. This, he argues, leads to public mistrust in the justice system, as suspects are released and seen in communities where they allegedly committed the rape.
“The alleged perpetrator, too, has his right, and if the prosecutor or complainant cannot prove their case against that person, the court is under the legal mandate to dismiss it to also protect the right of the other party,” Judge Flomo says.
Bernice Freeman of West Africa Peace-building Network (WAPNET), argues it is time for stakeholders to focus on supporting public prosecutors, rather than spending money on awareness that has been carried out for years.
“It is better our international partners and donors give attention to paying prosecution team to have the courage to prosecute cases of rape, because by following and prosecuting these cases effectively, the crime will decrease and women will have security,” Freeman says.
“The prosecution team for the government does not exert much efforts to plea the cases, because they do not receive money that private lawyers receive.”
The cases are disturbing. In May, Odell Sherman, a 12th grader, who had just completed her national examinations, was found unconscious at a Methodist prelate’s home in Duarzon, Margibi County after being reportedly raped. She later died.
On May 9, 2019, a 10-year old was raped and died from excess bleeding on arrival at the John F. Kennedy Medical Center. And months before that, in December last year, ProPublica and Time Magazine reported that several girls were raped and infected with HIV/AIDS by an executive of More Than Me, who later died of the disease. The American charity has shut down, but the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection has yet to release findings into an inquest in the saga, while the institute had shut down operations in Liberia.
Then recently, two male students—Mac Holder and Stephen Collins—were arrested for allegedly raping a fellow student at the Cuttington University in Bong County.
Brenda Brewer Moore, founder of Kids Educational Engagement Project (KEEP), says sex education and anti-rape messages must be incorporated in all aspects of daily life. She calls on institutions to carry out background checks on staff before employing them, to prevent rape.
“Educational programs and training must be facilitated and encouraged for teachers and other caregivers, especially in those entities that deal with children,” Moore says.
“It is time to develop and enforce child protection policies of which parents, teachers, and students are fully aware in all institutions. We must talk about it often and openly and must be preached in churches and mosques, in the homes and on the radios and television,” she adds.
Lakshmi Moore, Country Director of ActionAid Liberia, blames the culture of impunity in Liberia for the surge in the number of rape cases. She says culprits are taking advantage of a system that exposes women and girls to sexual violence.
“To end rape, we must ensure we end the culture of impunity and fix the justice system many survivors barely go through, because either the court term is not feasible or they have no support or money to cover transportation…” Laxshmi Moore says.
“We need to invest in the legal system, train more police, more resources for them to report and follow up on cases, equipment to properly document cases; more trained staff at health centers; psychosocial support, funds for survivors and their families,” she says.
Bernice Freeman of WAPNET urges families of rape victims and the police not to compromise rape cases. “Because of poverty, some parents of rape survivors are given undisclosed sums of money to relocate in different communities to undermine the case,” she says.
Marie’s mother has reported the case to the Ministry of Gender, which has told this newspaper it is looking into the matter. Her mother says, “I will pursue this case until I get justice.”
This story was a collaboration of New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.