International Development Law Organization

Liberia: Prosecuting gender violence crimes

More than a decade after the civil war in Liberia ended, sexual violence remains rife.

While rape was systematically used as a weapon of fear and shame during the fourteen-year war (1989-2003), the incidence of sexual violence against women in Liberia today still remains one of the highest in the world.

According to Doctors Without Borders, during the conflict most sexual assaults were targeted against strangers, but today 85% of perpetrators know their victim.

A pattern coupled with an increase in sexual violence against children; figures from 2011 showed that 55% of survivors who reported rape were less than 15 years old.

Despite efforts under Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - who criminalized rape, created violence against women prosecution units, opened protection centers in police stations, and established a special court for sexual violence offenses - many cases still go unreported due to the stigma and fear surrounding these crimes.

Doubts about the effectiveness of the courts, a lack of confidence in the system, as well as the low number of successful prosecutions, mean that survivors are reluctant to pursue legal channels. Of some one-thousand-five-hundred women who sought help at a one-stop center for the survivors of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), only around a quarter went on to report the assault to police.

Another of the overwhelming challenges facing the courts today is the time it takes to deal with pre-trial detainees, who on average spend 3-4 years in jail before any court appearance.

At the start of this year, IDLO began work in Liberia on a project aimed at improving judicial accountability for sexual violence offenses. Working with the judiciary, IDLO will be looking at the efficiency and accountability of Criminal Court “E” - the special court designated in 2008 to deal exclusively with sexual violence crimes.

Earlier this month, IDLO brought together - for the very first time - the different parties working in the court system, from prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators to defense lawyers and probation officers.

Many had rarely, if ever, spoken to each other.

Participants praised the first three weeks’ track record of newly-appointed Judge Fayiah, who himself welcomed the opportunity to exchange ideas between the various users of Court E. His appointment as a senior male judge to what was traditionally seen as a women’s court is widely viewed as a positive move. Despite having started by fining prosecutors for appearing late in court, they gave him credit for the way he has taken charge; cases are reported to have already been dealt with more speedily.

Those present considered ways to improve the Court’s performance and agreed to convene the forum on a monthly basis; initial discussions raised issues around maintaining the confidentiality of survivors, staff training and better record keeping and filing.

As a broader strand of this project, IDLO will also be working with civil society organizations to improve support and protection services for victims and witnesses of SGBV. Funded by the US government, the program is part of its Accountability Initiative launched in 2014 at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict.

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Monrovia, Liberia