Thursday, January 18, 2007

Rising levels of rape and sexual exploitation of women and teenage girls in Liberia have sparked concern by the government and women's rights groups

IRIN:

Despite a peace agreement in 2003 that ended the particularly brutal 14-year civil war, during which fighters sexually assaulted girls and women and sometimes used them as "sex slaves", these types of violent abuse were still common, according to Lois Bruthus, head of the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), a leading advocacy group.

"The raping of girls and women is a major problem ... we have been trying to curtail [these attacks], but it still continues," Bruthus told IRIN/PlusNews. Strong anti-rape legislation is in place, but women's groups have charged that a weak court system was hampering rape convictions.

Local media report at least two incidents of the rape of girls as young as five years of age every week, and a recent study at a hospital in the capital, Monrovia, by international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), showed that teenage girls were more exposed to rape in the capital.

An estimated 85 percent of the 658 rape survivors reporting to the hospital were aged under 18, while 48 percent were aged between 5 and 12 years. "In more than 90 percent of the cases involving children, they were raped by someone they knew," MSF said.

Antoinette Nebo, a community leader in West Point, one of Monrovia's slums, confirmed that sexual offenders, who were usually in their forties, often targeted "baby girls".

She said poverty was the main reason why girls were being raped. "They [cash-strapped parents] sometimes extort money from the perpetrators to privately settle the case without going through the courts system. It is a shared act of total wickedness by heartless persons to rape our young girls, and most of the victims' parents or guardians are ... [complicit in] rape cases."

Liberia has an unemployment rate of 85 percent and is one of the world's poorest countries, with most of the population living on less than US$1 a day, according to the World Development Index.

The growing trend towards transactional sex between older, financially stable men and young women and even younger girls has drawn the attention of President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, who issued a warning to rape perpetrators in December 2006.

"To those of you who are privileged or attained successes in businesses and are in our communities, and to those of you who represent the international community, I urge you not to use your wealth and power to sexually exploit children and women. It is an unacceptable behaviour, and a major challenge currently facing all of us," the president said.

Gender Affairs Minister Vabah Gayflor also expressed concern over the growing incidence of sexual offences during the recent launch of a joint one-year anti-rape campaign by the government and the United Nations (UN).

"Sexual exploitation is becoming another major problem for [our] women; we are increasingly hearing of girls being forced by wealthy men into exchanging sex for material gain," Gayflor charged.

The campaign, which carries the central messages of: 'No sex for help. No help for sex. Sex is not a requirement for jobs, grades, medical treatment or other services', aims to empower women and girls against sexual abuse.

Amelia Tucker, a women's rights advocate in the town of Kakata, 45km north of the capital, said sexual exploitation was taking place in schools and places of work. "In November [2006], a girl reported that a school teacher had demanded sex from her in exchange for better grades in a school examination that she could not attend due to illness. When we confronted this gentleman, he denied the allegations."

She has called for policies similar to those of the anti-rape law to be put place in order to root out offenders.

In terms of the law, raping a minor carries a life sentence, with the suspects denied bail. But with rape cases steadily climbing in the country, AFELL activists have been concerned that the law only worked on paper.

Bruthus has recommended that a specialised rape court be established to help address the problem, and charged that the judicial system was failing in its duties.

Her sentiments were reflected in an official five-year 'National Gender-based Violence Plan of Action', which read: "Perpetrators go unpunished or receive light sentences, few survivors report cases, and law enforcement is known for treating survivors poorly."

Only two people have received life sentences since the law was enacted.

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