On the tail of the International Day of the Girl Child, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a United Nations Report on as it stated in a news release, Liberia’s “very high number of rapes”. It also made claims that, “Rape is the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia,” and that “there has been no criminal accountability for perpetrators of war crimes in Liberia, including perpetrators of wartime sexual violence.” The release also included the 2004 World Health Organization (WHO) finding that, “between 61.4 and 77.4 percent of women and girls in Liberia were raped during the war.”
This data was used to support their claim that the Liberian government is unable to “ensure criminal accountability for perpetrators of rape”, and “that Liberia is not in compliance with its human rights obligations.” They also provided several recommendations to the Government, as well as other national and international stakeholders in the report.
There are several issues with the claims and presentation of the data discussed in the release, and further report. Initially, the statement that there is “a high number of rapes reported in all 15 counties across the country” is not qualifiable. Especially when compared with developed countries such as the United States. In the US, there were 284,350 reported rapes, 1.68 percent per capita, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Victimization report from 2014. Whereas, Liberia’s 803 reported cases this year stand at 0.02 percent per capita, a percentage significantly lower considering it as a ‘third world’ post-conflict nation.
Additionally, the news release mentions the issue of impunity, but not the Accra Peace Accord of 2003, which recommended a Truth and Reconciliation process instead of a war tribunal. Although it correctly addressed the current issue of widespread impunity in rape cases, “only two per cent of rapes and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) cases reported last year resulted [sic] in a conviction in court.” It does not properly contextualize the law and order issue, framing the war crime and lack of ‘accountability’ as a precedent for future cases, not as an effort towards peace and reconciliation which was its intention.
This failing was mirrored by the caricature of the WHO data used in the release, which was criticized last week in the Washington Post article, Were 75 percent of Liberian women and girls raped? No. So why is the U.N. repeating that misleading ‘statistic’? by Dara Kay Cohen and Amelia Hoover Green. The article challenged the validity of the finding and it’s use by the UN and other organizations.
Arguing that the figure used was not ethically appropriate. The data cited is 14 years old and was not representative of the entire country, because it was only conducted in two of the fifteen counties (Bong and Montserrado). Even, the title of the document cited, “a survey of victims of sexual violence” should have disqualified the document for use in the release.
The problem other than the misuse of the data reported in the UN report urges Liberia to act on rape news release are that these findings are created to inform policy makers and decisions. These types of reports often inflate the global view of the country’s inability to self-govern. Even more damaging, is the vicious circle that ensues as policy is driven by poor data, and poor policy is then implemented and gives way to more flawed data. Using data to balloon issues is harmful for the communities and future victims due to the conclusions drawn from the reports. As reports are produced, careful attention must be taken when deciding which information is highlighted due to the overarching effects they will have on policy and the global image of the government.
Further, the sickening irony of the report and following criticism is that as previously noted, it follows the UN Women’s International Day of the Girl Child which theme for this year is, “Girls’ Progress = Goals’ Progress: A Global Girl Data Movement”, a call for action for increased investment in collecting and analyzing girl-focused, girl-relevant and sex-disaggregated data.” Data collected on an issue as sensitive and important to girls as rape, should be collected and released with extreme diligence, not casually and exaggerated as it is done in this report.
Liberia has the ability to provide unique insights into diverse indigenous knowledge, culture and particularly at-risk groups. At the Center for Liberia’s Future, we conduct research on particularly at risk and as the report illustrated under researched populations. Data and research gathered by country based research firms can be especially beneficial. We understand the necessity of primary data and that it must be contextualized, especially when the aim of the survey is culture sensitive. Research biases associated with “hard-to research” population minimize significantly when local experts (people who understand the socio-cultural terrain) of the country are conducting the research, providing an added credibility.
Further it also empowers the country, as the UN and others partners drawdown in the near future. Even though, there are positive aspects of the faulty data, our major concern is about the tented image that it portrays pertaining to the handling of rape cases under the 11 years ruling of the first female president, H.E Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It has the ability to significantly cloud her numerous achievements during her tenure as president.
The Authors: Eddie Miaway Farngalo is the Head of the Research at the Center for Liberia’s Future. Aisha Dukule is the organization’s Communication Officer. The Center for Liberia’s Future conducts groundbreaking interdisciplinary research on emerging situations, under-researched and hard-to-reach populations within the Mano River Union Basin. The center is currently doing a national study on community perceptions about Ebola and the reintegration of Ebola survivors, orphans and caregivers.