As a young girl Garmar Murphy was forced into a child soldier’s life, serving as a sexual plaything for Liberian rebels between battles — a tragic norm in the country’s savage conflict.
She was 13 years old, and rape was not criminalised by law.
A decade later, her country boasts Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who recently won a Nobel Peace Prize with Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee for their struggle to boost women’s rights and safety.
But if women have taken some steps forward in the eight years since a peace accord ended Liberia’s civil war, they haven’t left behind the threat of rape.
Rape became endemic as a weapon of fear during the 14-year-long conflict and is still rampant, going unpunished more often than not.
Murphy, now 23, her eyes downcast, tells of the day she went to fetch water when her village was attacked and everyone fled or was killed, leaving her at the mercy of invading rebels.
“I was a kid … I lost my parents, I never had any choice at all. All I need to do is to satisfy their desire. If I didn’t join there, they gonna kill me,” she said.
“If you blessed, the general see you and love you, you only be for that general alone. If you not lucky … it means you will be for all the soldiers.”
‘Women shouldn’t sit down’
A mention of her country’s joint Nobel win brightens Murphy’s face with a bold grin.
“Liberian women, we are moving forward. It encouraged me that we women shouldn’t sit down, you can still make it.”
Murphy is now a peer counsellor at Think, a women’s organisation that runs a safehouse for victims of rape and domestic violence.
Victims are also enrolled in a rehabilitation programme to learn a trade and life skills.
Think founder Rosana Schaack says that while the spotlight on Liberia’s women has boosted spirits, it has not changed the harsh realities of a society in which rape and gender violence remain commonplace.
“Looking at where we came from, we can say we have reached one milestone, but we have ten more to go. The perception from outside that all is well, that Liberia is a shining star, that all of the women are experiencing their rights. It is far from that …”
Making rape a crime
Sirleaf has overseen the enactment of harsh new rape laws, the creation of a dedicated rape court, and a women’s police unit launched in 2009.
Women now are increasingly likely to come forward to report rape and seek treatment, which experts say might be one of the reasons it appears as if the number of cases is increasing.
“Now rape is a big crime, you go in jail, so the men are afraid. At that time the men were in power, they rape you at anytime, they just hold you in the bush, do what they want to do,” says Murphy.
Statistics are hard to come by, but Think’s safehouse alone saw 728 rape cases last year, including 690 children between the ages of 13 and 17 — pointing to disturbingly high levels of child rape.
“A few weeks ago we had a four-month-old baby that was violently raped. Now that baby will not be able to identify a perpetrator. If we had forensics we would have DNA evidence on this person,” says Schaack.
A lack of forensic analysis is one of many daunting challenges faced by Criminal Court E, the special rape court, whose chief prosecutor Felicia Coleman has to overcome an exhausting list of barriers to convict rape offenders.
“We have very little to go with, most of our cases are based on circumstantial evidence,” she says.
When the court started its work in February 2009, it was handed 150 cases on the spot. Some of the accused had been awaiting trial in jail for up to three years, records were non-existent and witnesses had long disappeared, meaning that many suspects went free.
With five criminal courts and only one grand jury to indict all suspects, and more people being arrested and jailed every day, “it seemed like we were hardly doing anything”, says Coleman.
Since the rape court was set up, only 18 cases have been tried, and 10 people convicted.
“It may be few but when you think about all the challenges …,” says Coleman, her voice trailing off.
Convincing women to press charges is a major battle and those who do often change their minds. Stigmatisation is high and most perpetrators are acquaintances of their victims, meaning there is a lot of pressure not to pursue the case.
“A lot of women prefer using the informal justice system, the traditional method of getting justice, the formal justice system doesn’t meet all of their needs,” said Coleman.
The traditional method can involve mediation by community elders or village chiefs.
Pursuing a case in court “has a lot of financial implications on the family. They will have to leave a whole week to be able to come to court on a daily basis, that time they are away from work they are losing income.”
The crumbling seaside capital of Monrovia, where red-mud potholed roads and bright greenery fill the spaces between faded buildings, is worlds away from Oslo, where Sirleaf and Gbowee will collect their Nobel awards on December 10.
“I think the giving of the prize will give us the motivation to keep pressing on, sometimes you get so discouraged … but for us as women we are looking into the deepest part of our resolve and bringing it out,” says Schaack. — AFP