By David A. Yates and Alvin Worzi
— President Weah unveils DNA machine, revolutionizes capacity to investigate rape cases
The administration of President George Weah administration has bought the country’s second post-war public DNA machine to combat rape and other sexual and gender-based violence, but it is unclear if there are skilled technicians available for the machine.
The new DNA machine comes three years after the then United Nations Mission in Liberia donated a similar machine to the government of Liberia, however it was left unused due to the lack of skilled personnel to operate the machine.
The current status of that machine is also unknown as the government relies on Ghana for its DNA testing. Before the purchasing of this DNA machine, the government had struggles in prosecuting rape cases as a result of no forensic facilities or a functioning DNA machine to strengthened investigations and evidence gathering—resulting in many alleged rapists getting acquitted as state prosecutors lack concrete evidence for a conviction.
However, women rights activists including Facia B. Harris and Caroline Brown of the Paramount Young Women Initiative and Medica Liberia, respectively, have welcomed the move by the government and argued that unlike in the past, the coming of the DNA machine will speed up rape cases prosecution, which will lead to high conviction due to evidence been available.
For Ms. Harris, a fully operational DNA machine is critical to evidence gathering in the fight against rape especially in a situation where the burden of proof is on the survivors of rape, and “proving rape is highly dependent on evidence.”
“The DNA machine will aid in the process of gathering evidence and in return help fast track prosecution,” Ms. Harris noted.
According to Madam Brown, who teaches economics at the University of Liberia, the need for DNA machines is long overdue but its arrival is a welcome development. However, in the midst of the excitement, she reminds the government to ensure that there are trained personnel available to operate the machine, particularly having the technical knowledge on how to collect and preserve evidence, which is equally important in the fight against rape.
“We hope more of such can be provided to communities outside of the capital as we know that women’s access to Justice remains critical across the country. We also hope that there are trained personnel and other logistics support to facilitate the operationalization of the equipment,” Madam Brown said.
Earlier on, while President George Weah was unmasking DNA machines, he argued strongly that “the technology will have a positive impact on the way rape cases are investigated in Liberia.”
“I am pleased and honored to be here today and join the rest of the world in the celebration of International Women’s Day 2021,” President Weah said. “As a government, we acknowledge that women continue to lead empowerment and that we have the responsibility to institute and implement all measures that will promote such empowerment and at the same time ensure the safety of our women and children who are most marginalized.”
President Weah said after setting-up a taskforce to look into the increasing waves of rape and formulating ways to address it, he realized that for many years, criminal investigations in Liberia on sexual and gender-based violence has relied on victims complaints, so there was an urgent need for a DNA machine to aid prosecutors in establishing proof on the crime of rape.
“Under my declaration of rape as a national emergency, the Minister of Finance Samuel Tweah was mandated to provide funding for the immediate purchasing of a DNA machine. Today, I am happy to announce that the DNA testing machine is now in Liberia. This is a great step in bringing relief and justice to survivors of gender-based violence as to alleged perpetrators,” the Liberian leader said.
Accordingly, President Weah said as feminist-in-chief of Liberia, he will continue to exert all efforts to directly address challenges faced by women of Liberia as they have now become more vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the wake of the coronavirus, women and girls experience the unprecedented increased environment of violence ranging from sexual abuse, domestic violence, and other harmful practices,” President Weah said.
Why the need for DNA machines?
Over the past few months, the government has only been able to prosecute 107 SGBV cases tried in court, leading to 44 convictions and 42 acquittals from January to June 2020.
These acquittals case, according to SGBV campaigners, is happening at an alarming rate in the country due to the fact that persecutors rely on first-hand accounts and other evidence that leaves room for interpretation. The decisions of these Judges come against the background that many of those imprisoned for alleged rape, spent months, if not years, in jail awaiting trial as prosectors in most cases suffers from limited evidence to proceed with cases.
In one instance, a suspected’ rapist denied committing the act despite other evidence including the victim’s clothes but argued that he cannot be held liable because of DNA evidence to link him to the crime despite the victim’s cloth been soaked with blood.
According to data from the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, there were 182 cases of rape reported in January 2019, as compared to January 2020, when 172 rape cases were reported. In February 2020, there were 174 rape cases as compared to the same month in 2019, which recorded 169 cases of rape. In March 2020, there were 160 rape cases reported compared to the same month in 2019, which recorded 154 cases of rape.
The Gender Ministry data suggests that between 2019 and 2020 there was very little disparity between the numbers of rape cases reported each month during the first quarter of either year. And for a small population like Liberia, this means that within the first quarter of any given year, on average, more than five hundred women fall prey to rape, counting only the reported cases.
In response to the statistics, the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, sometime last year said the primary difficulty in prosecution SGBV cases in court has always been lack of proof — DNA evidence.
While Minister Tarr’s wish for DNA machine may have come true, most health care facilities in the country in rural areas of typically have limited or no access to rape kits and evidence collected from these areas might poorly be transport to Monrovia, the machine is for testing.
This, in the presence of a functioning DNA machine, might make prosecuting rape cases still difficult unless she and her team focus on training police officers to properly handle the collection of rape victims specimen, documentation, preservation, and management to avoid it handle in degraded and contaminated form.
Currently, there is a widespread lack of training and competence among medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals about the collection and perseveration of DNA evidence.
In response to this new development, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, said the government could not have chosen a more appropriate theme: “Liberian women, like women in many parts of the world, are disproportionately affected by the secondary impact of COVID-19, including the economic uncertainties created by the disease.”
Ambassador McCarthy said women deserve special attention as they design and implement policies to counter the broad social and economic impacts of the pandemic. “And this is what we have tried to do in designing United States assistance to Liberia’s COVID-19 response.”
“But the fact that women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 is a stark reminder of the need to do more – the need to knock down the entrenched barriers to progress for women empowerment; to uproot the structural impediments to gender parity that make women and girls so vulnerable to shocks like the pandemic.”
Yesterday’s program marking International Women’s Day was graced by both local and international partners including First Lady Clar M. Weah, Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor, Minister of Gender Children and Social Protection Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, Swedish Ambassador to Liberia Ingrid Wetterqvist, UN Resident Coordinator Neil Scott, among others.
This year, International Women’s Day is being observed under the global theme: “Women in Leadership, Achieving an Equal Future in the COVID-19 World,” and the National theme: “Women in Leadership Breaking Down Barriers in the Dispensation of COVID-19 World.”