By Lisa Kindervater Sieh and Muthoni Muriithi for Oxfam in Liberia
Globally, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime and Liberia is no exception, with 40% of women reporting at least one instance. Of the 1685 cases of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) recorded by the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection (MGCSP) in 2017, 1641 (97.4%) of the survivors were women or girls. 86% (990/1148) of the female survivors of sexual violence were under 18 years old. Over 97% of the perpetrators were men. While the above statistics should give us a sense of the problem in the country, we know these cases are severely underreported in Liberia, given that only 1685 cases are on record for 2017. Worse still, survivors are too often denied justice. Last year, only 318 SGBV cases were sent to court and just 21 perpetrators (6.6%) were convicted. Too often, women and girls don’t even report cases of violence due to the stigma and the victim blaming survivors face.
VAWG is both a cause and consequence of unequal gender power relations and discrimination in society. Women and girls are explicitly or implicitly considered to be inferior to men and boys causing them to be treated differently and enjoy fewer rights and privileges. Harmful gender norms about men’s ownership or entitlement to women, and the acceptability of violence to reinforce these norms are key drivers of VAWG. Perceiving women and girls as sexual objects also contributes to high rates of sexual violence and the lack of empathy survivors experience when they report violence. Estella G-Dandy, Psychosocial Counselor in Oxfam’s partner organization Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI), Sinoe County, Liberia says, “Violence against women and girls is a huge problem in Liberia, because many men think they are entitled to do anything to women.” Laws and policies to prevent and respond to VAWG are therefore not enough – we must also tackle the underlying norms and attitudes that justify and normalize this type of violence. Social norms that shame and blame survivors stops them from coming forward. When survivors do find the courage to speak out in Liberia, their allegations are often dealt with in the “family way” (usually through reparations paid directly to the survivors or more likely – to the survivor’s family) or in the customary system through traditional leaders and processes. These norms and practices greatly undermine the application of the law and deny women and girls access to justice while perpetrators roam free.
While interventions to end violence against women and girls have rightly focused on individual attitudes and beliefs, access and control of financial resources and the adoption of legal and institutional frameworks, they have not adequately addressed the role of social and gender norms in reinforcing and normalizing violence against women and girls. These norms can cause families and communities to disbelieve survivors of violence and prevent them from seeing this violence as a crime. Ora Barclay Keller, Executive Director of The Girls for Change Organization says that many “parents and guardians have the perception that victims of SGBV looked for it – either from their dress code, late night movements, hang outs at bars and clubs, and frequent association and interaction with males”. These negative norms also impact on the ways in which service providers, law enforcement agents, court officials provide support to survivors of violence. After all, the people in these institutions come from the same communities where violence is normalized and not seen as a crime or injustice against women and girls.
Oxfam’s Social Norms and Masculinities Research: “Dresscode” and Victim Blaming
The challenges and experiences of survivors prompted Oxfam Liberia to study the social norms in Montserrado, Grand Gedeh and Sinoe counties to understand those that reinforce and normalize VAWG. The research revealed various gender and social norms that contributed to a culture of acceptance, particularly of sexual violence and intimate partner violence or “wife beating”.
One of the most dominant norms that was identified in the research was that 47% of the respondents believed that “girls and women are sexually abused because of the way they dress” and believed that if women and girls dressed modestly sexual abuse would stop or reduce. In focus group discussions, respondents also said they believed that women and girls often lied about rape to extort money or get revenge on a man. They also believed that mothers were to blame for the behavior of their daughters. Blame was rarely placed on men’s behavior – except in cases where the abused was a small child. These set of beliefs contribute to a culture of blaming survivors of violence not only in communities but among some service providers and law enforcement agents. These norms are dangerous as they place the blame on women and girls and at the same time, boys and men learn that women and girls dress in a certain way because they want sex and therefore they learn to see women as just sexual objects for their pleasure.
50% of the respondents felt that it was responsibility of the women to maintain her marriage or relationship. This norm saw women remain in violent relationships for the “sake of the children” and because the failure of their marriage would bring shame and stigma to them and their families. Despite knowing the laws prohibiting domestic violence, women would not report cases of domestic violence for fear of being blamed by the community for bringing shame and breaking up the family. Women also feared being abandoned or left by their partner in a society where marriage is highly valued and where women’s status is strongly tied to that of her husband.
The research also interrogated norms around masculinity and identified some negative beliefs about manhood that normalized the perpetration of violence against women. For example, 39% of the respondents agreed that “a man has a right to discipline a woman for disobeying or being argumentative”, 37% of the respondents felt that men were superior to women, while 33% agreed that “men have a right to sex in marriage”. Respondents agreed that culturally and religiously, marital rape does not exist since a woman has no right to refuse sex from her husband. 37% agreed that “women and girls are the property of men” – a belief that also contributes to sexual violence and assault. While these views do not reflect the entire belief system in the community, these beliefs are often used as excuses to justify violence against women. The research also addressed the norms associated with what it means to “be a man” where respondents noted that it meant having financial success (or at least being the provider), sexual prowess (success in having plenty women or getting away with extra-marital affairs), toughness and strength (physically and emotionally), and dominance (especially being “in charge”). Men are expected to exhibit or prove that they possessed these qualities within their peer groups and can be seen as “correct” to perpetrate violence against women to prove that they are “men”.
Oxfam Liberia shared the outcomes of its report during the research validation and campaign strategy workshop on 23-26 October 2018. Oxfam partners and individual activists agreed strongly with these findings saying that many of these social norms and beliefs are prevalent in their areas of work and make it difficult for them to address sexual violence despite having laws and policies to combat violence against women. The partners together with Oxfam agreed that developing a sustained social norm campaign to challenge these social norms would go a long way in reducing the acceptance of violence in their communities and compliment ongoing work on ending VAWG in Liberia, including advocacy for the criminalization of domestic violence. Satta Sheriff, a prominent Liberian children’s rights activist, said the “The Enough campaign workshop was very powerful because the campaign is addressing issues at the grassroots level. For example, if we want to stop violence against girls, we need to identify the root causes and understand how society sees the rights of children, and better understand how the community has normalized violations against girls.”
The campaign will focus on sexual violence – the most common type of VAWG in Liberia – and will focus on challenging the norms that men are entitled to use and control women’s bodies, and that women and girls cause or contribute to their own abuse through their “dress code” or other behavior that people perceive as being “inappropriate” for women and girls. It was agreed that the campaign should focus on youth, (15-35 years old) since almost 70% of the population is under 35 and because many of the respondents in the research were young people who strongly agreed with some of the social norms. However, young respondents also talked about positive male role models as those who exercise self-discipline, are respectful of everybody and – even when they feel disrespected – are able to handle disagreements without losing their temper. The campaign will therefore promote positive social norms and masculinities that convey the message that women’s bodies belong to them and that “real men” exhibit self-control and ask for consent.
The campaign is set to be launched in January 2019 in the three counties: Sinoe, Grand Gedeh and Montserrado. The campaign will co-create activities with young people, use pop culture, edutainment, music, traditional media and social media to mobilize young people to join the campaign and will work with change agents and champions who model the positive behavior and that have influence over young people. For Oxfam in Liberia, it is important that young people take ownership and connect with the campaign and become champions on ending violence against women in their communities.
 Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection. 2017. GBV Statistical Report.