Where rape is a part of life

This is Philomena and her baby son, Maro. His mother is 16. Just one of Liberia’s thousands of child rape victims
meets the girls for whom rape has become a common and terrifying part of their lives

”When I was small it was the war, but I don’t remember too good,” says Finda Fallah. She’s talking about Liberia’s first civil war, which started in 1989 when she was two years old. Her family, along with up to a million other people, fled the country to escape its horrors.

Finda rocks her two-year-old daughter, Priscilla, in her arms as she talks, in the small hot office at the rescue home in Monrovia where she now lives. She’s 22-years-old now, just one of a generation of women in Liberia who have been irrevocably scarred by the use of rape as a weapon in her country’s civil wars.

After a decade in a refugee camp in neighbouring Guinea, Finda’s parents decided to return to their farm in Bong County. But a second war had begun, and in 2002 rebel soldiers came for Finda’s father. ”They said he was a spy. They beat him until he died. My mother was crying for my father and they beat her and they raped her too,” she says.

The soldiers, she doesn’t remember how many, also raped Finda, then 15, and forced her to come away with them into the jungle. ”They gave me a gun and said I had to go and fight,” she says. ”They used me as their wife. They killed a lot of people, mostly men. They raped women constantly. Even young, young boys did it.” I ask her why she thinks they did this. ”I don’t know,” she says. ”They had a gun and they had the power.”

Liberia’s civil wars were characterised by the extreme abandon with which rival militias terrorised the people. The soldiers who abducted Finda were, she has been told, loyal to the then president Charles Taylor, whose militias included the infamous Butt Naked Battalion, child soldiers out of their minds on speed, marijuana and palm wine. When they weren’t naked, they wore women’s nightdresses, wigs and make-up.

The excesses of the militias included burning people alive, making people eat the flesh of their murdered relatives, gang-raping women and girls, forcing boys to rape their mothers, placing bets on the sex of a foetus and then disembowelling pregnant women to find out who’d won. An estimated 300 000 people, mostly civilians, were killed, out of a population of just over three million.

Finda knew nothing of the cause served by her captors. She says she didn’t want to carry a gun and never killed anyone. She has since found out that most of her friends were raped during the war years. ”It happened anywhere and everywhere.” Finda got pregnant and had a baby boy. ”He died.”

Abandoned by the soldiers and separated from her family, Finda came to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. There was even more torment to come. ”There were soldiers all around,” she says. ”One of them raped me. He hurt me … he made me pregnant and then he went away.”

Like many women in post-war Liberia, Finda supported herself and her child by foraging and selling goods in the market at the city’s chaotic Red Light district, so called not because of the sex trade, but because it once had a traffic light. The light is gone now and market sellers surge around a constant jam of trucks and cars and old battered yellow taxis. Hundreds of men, women and children mill about with goods, sometimes just a handful of leaves or a couple of bicycle wheels. They crouch over stacks of pineapples, trays laid out with fierce red chillies, boxes full of batteries.

”I was selling peanuts one day and I passed the gate of this house and saw girls inside,” she says. She asked the security guard about the house and he told her it was a centre for girls who’d had bad experiences in the war. The centre is run by the Christian NGO Think Inc. After telling her story to a social worker, Finda was offered a place.

She says she will show me a book a nun wrote for her. We walk through the back porch where an older woman is deep-frying plantain slices over a charcoal fire, and through the classroom. She brings me into one of the home’s packed dormitories, the bunk beds so close together there’s hardly room to move, and pulls a notebook from under her pillow. The nun has written down the things Finda has told her about her life, and then she has urged her to pray to God for help.

Finda misses her father. He wanted her to get an education and sent her to school when it was possible. ”I don’t want anyone else to take care of me,” she says. Sometimes she goes to see her mother, who now works as a servant. ”She is very poor now and she is sick. Sometimes I talk with her about what happened, but she cries and says she wants to die. I say you just have to pray.”

The home offers literacy classes, skills training and counselling. The girls look serious and preoccupied, but during play therapy, when they play children’s party games out in the yard, there is laughter and squealing and excitement. There’s a high perimeter wall laced with barbed wire, and a security guard on the gate. This is, above all, a safe place. ”We pray a lot and they teach me a lot of things,” Finda says. ”How to sustain my life. How to live with people. How to know my importance in life. How to take care of myself. Before, I felt I would just be nobody.”

She wants to become a ”cosmetologist”, giving hair and beauty treatments. Cosmetology is big in Monrovia. Near the home, there is a shack called the Two Sisters Beauty Salon, with the handpainted slogan: ”Looking good is money”. Liberian women spend a lot of time doing each other’s hair, changing styles frequently, and wearing wigs. The girls at the home sit on the porch after lunch, combing and oiling and plaiting. Finda is disappointed that her daughter has very little hair.

She strokes Priscilla’s short, rusty curls abstractedly. She’s gentle with the child, but ambivalent about their future. ”Maybe she will stay with me, maybe someone will take her and look after her,” she says. ”I don’t mind.”

A lot of the older girls in the home were, like Finda, victims of rape during the war. Some of the younger ones have suffered it more recently. Philomena is an orphan who was just 14 when she was sent by her aunt to live with a man who had offered to be her guardian. ”Unfortunately, he raped me and I became pregnant,” she says. Now, aged 16, she offers her small breast to four- month-old Maro. The wars are said to be over, but the violence has certainly not ended for Liberia’s young girls.

The Liberian minister for gender, Vabah Gayflor, kicks off her high heels and sighs as she sits down to talk. She’s a flamboyant young woman in a fuchsia pink suit. We meet in the dining hall of the huge stadium named after former president Samuel Doe on the outskirts of Monrovia. The minister has spent the day at a preparatory meeting for an international consortium on gender-based violence to address the plight of young women like Finda and Philomena. ”To tell you the truth, the situation is very bad,” she says. ”They are waging a war on children — it is pathetic.” A group of giddy young stadium workers are laughing and chatting at the other end of the hall. ”Excuse me, guys,” she shouts. ”We are doing an interview here. This isn’t a joke.”

Gayflor’s department is charged with finding out about the use of sexual violence against women and children during the war, but also in its aftermath. The facts that are emerging about the former are horrifying — one World Health Organisation study found that over 90% of women in some of the areas most afflicted by the war experienced some form of sexual violence, 75% were raped, many of them by gangs, and 49% were forced into sex work, many of them as ”bush wives” to militias. Almost 14% of the victims were under the age of 15. However, perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that extreme sexual violence is still very prevalent against very young girls.

”I don’t know if the violence has to do with the impunity people experienced during the war,” Gayflor says. ”Domestic violence was always a problem here, but rape was never part of our society. People got used to preying on those who have no way of fighting back. Babies are being raped. People are sick. They haven’t been able to rediscover themselves. Today’s 16- and 17-year- olds, boys and girls, lived through the war and were neglected by their parents because they were just trying to survive. A lot of them never went to school. They have no skills. We are hearing that there is a significant problem with prostitution. We need to give them other choices.”

Unemployment is at a startling 85% in Liberia, and gangs of young men hang around the streets of the capital with nothing to do. Women and girls are advised not to walk alone. Driving through small towns, we see posters for pornographic movies.

Gayflor says that many mothers have been traumatised by their war experiences and are unable to protect their children. Almost 20% of those in the WHO survey became pregnant because of rape, and some have had difficulty caring for the children born as a result. One of Gayflor’s staff tells me that she has heard of a woman who was forced by soldiers to come into the market square every day during their occupation of a village. She was made to strip and spread her legs and lie where everyone could see her. The woman has since taken to drinking heavily, leaving her five children to fend for themselves. Many women have been left widowed by the war and left with the responsibility for raising the children of their murdered sons.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who, at 71, is the first woman to head an African country, shares her minister’s view that the long years of war transformed Liberian people. ”It has introduced into our national psyche a culture of violence,” she tells me when I meet her at her office in the vast Department of Foreign Affairs on Monrovia’s Atlantic seafront.

”Rape was never a problem for us in our traditional society. Today it is a serious problem and it is young children who are being abused. We have heard things like this belief that if you have sex with a young child you won’t get HIV. But it goes beyond that. I just think it is a complete loss of morality. During these wars people’s own private desires became paramount and there is no consideration of the victim. The conflicts went on so long that now these things have become part of our cultural habits.”

Women do not always put the needs of their children first, she says. ”Don’t forget poverty has a big part to play in this,” she says. A lot of women stay silent after their child is raped because they don’t want the exposure, or because they are paid to be silent. They get promises of education or financial support for the child. They take this easy way out, not thinking of the long-term consequences for their children. They take short cuts. They don’t see the damage.” Women must be empowered, she says, and men must be sensitised to consequences of their sexual violence.

Last year, a study found that children aged from two months to 17 years had been raped during 2007, and that the vast majority of them had not resulted in any action against the perpetrator. Several children had been ritualistically killed, and others had been tortured, beaten, trafficked, neglected and abandoned. The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, Afell, chaired the study group. Its president, Dewah Gray, believes a lot of the problems women and girls face in her country arise from their traditional status as chattels. The association has pioneered new laws on inheritance, and to outlaw forced marriage and early marriage of girls under the age of 14. At its instigation a new law against rape, including gang rape, has just been introduced. There is to be a new court specially to try rape cases, and they will be fast-tracked.

The association takes its lead from the demands made by women. ”We believe that female genital mutilation of girl children is a serious issue, but we need people to come out and talk about it and so far they haven’t,” says Gray. The sexual mutilation of girls takes place as part of traditional initiation ceremonies.

”The guns are silent but the rape goes on,” says Gray. ”We have a broken-down justice system. Jail breaks are very common and some counties don’t even have jails. Traditional justice based on tribal councils don’t work because they are based on the family, and in many of the cases of child rape that we are seeing now, the perpetrators are in the family.” There is, according to many people I meet, a high incidence of domestic and sexual violence involving ex combatants, including child rape and the murder of their partners.

There is also a major problem of adults expecting children to be sexually available to them in return for their help — notably teachers demanding ”sex for grades”. This is particularly unfortunate in a society in which more than 70% of women are illiterate, in which girls have traditionally been kept from school to help at home, and in which there is a major drive to get families to value education for girls. Gray stares out the window of her small, noisy office on Monrovia’s main avenue. ”At one time we had a case of a nine-month-old baby,” she says. ”The child passed.”

Up north in Bong County, the violence was particularly intense during the war. This was where President Sirleaf’s predecessor, Charles Taylor, had his headquarters and where he raised his brutal militias. Taylor is currently on trial for international war crimes at a special tribunal in The Hague, while his son has just been jailed for 97 years for crimes against humanity in Liberia. Taylor senior’s wife is still a senator in the local capital of Gbarnga. Out in the villages, women who suffered intensely during the war are now demanding a better deal for themselves and their children, and they are supported by the president and her gender ministry. However, there are worrying signs that younger women have grown up with a dangerously high tolerance of sexual and domestic violence.

At the Pallala Women’s Centre, in the jungle near the border with Guinea, a group of women have come to meet me. I’ve been brought here by Dorothy Tooman, who coordinates an innovative local gender action programme. Gertie Ganya looks about 20, and her niece Kuku slightly younger. Both shrug when we ask their ages.

Gertie runs her fingers over scars on her neck, face and arms as she speaks. She says the father of her two children left these marks when he and his new girlfriend attacked her with a blade. He tortured her, she says, urinated on her while she slept, beat her while she was pregnant. Eventually she came back to her mother, and now tries to make a living collecting wood for charcoal and selling it at the roadside.

Kuku is tiny and thin and wears the traditional local skirt of brightly patterned cotton with a Chelsea football shirt and stilettos. She breastfeeds her baby while she tells a similar story to her aunt’s. She, too, has scars to trace. Other young women tell similar stories of violence and abandonment. Several have children to different men, none of whom are providing any support. Maka, an older woman in a long, traditional dress, shakes her head as she listens to these stories. ”It is no good the way things are now,” she says. ”Men have got into the habit of making girls pregnant and then leaving. And the girls are tolerating it.”

Another woman tells us she had to flee to Guinea during the war along with her daughter. ”She was clever. We are Muslims and she went to Arabic school in Guinea. The imam said he’d help her but in fact he raped her. She was 16. So then she had this boy,” she says, nodding towards a shy child in the doorway. ”I was so angry I went to the authorities, but the man ran away,” she says. ”A lot of things happened to us as women. We can’t tell them all.”

There is a serious shortage of health professionals in Liberia, and hardly any psychiatrists and counsellors. Many of the children who experience sexual violence get neither treatment nor therapy. Oretha Brooks is a psychosocial counsellor at the Duport Clinic in Monrovia. There’s a big billboard in the red light district advertising it. It includes a graphic depiction of a rape. Almost three-quarters of Liberian women can’t read. Brooks says the youngest child she’s had brought to her was six months old. ”We get a lot of eight and nine-year-old girls. They are afraid that the person who raped them might beat them or even kill them. They worry that they will be pregnant and that they will be sick,” she says.

”We do HIV and other tests and we counsel their parents to help them to take care of their child. Sometimes the child is crying a lot. Sometimes they are mute, grieving within. If we feel they are at risk of suicide, we refer them to the Think Inc safe home, or if they are at high risk because the perpetrator is a member of their family.” Her colleague Lucia Kehwillian says that they see a lot of children that they believe have been raped for ritualistic reasons. ”Some men want a big job or something and they go to a witch doctor. He tells them, bring semen that has been spilled in a virgin. One man did it to his stepchild. Her mother wouldn’t report it. She said her daughter would not get a husband if people knew what happened to her,” she says. ”You know, a lot of this is pure wickedness.” – guardian.co.uk

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