An estimated 250,000 people died in Liberia’s civil war, which began in 1989 and lasted until 2003—about a century and a half after the country was founded by freed slaves from the United States and the Caribbean. According to the United Nations, some 40,000 women were raped during the conflict.
In 2011, Liberia’s population was estimated at 4.1 million, with indigenous groups making up some 95 percent of the population. Five percent of the population traces their heritage to “freed slaves from the Americas and the Caribbean, free-born African-Americans, and Africans captured from slave ships on the high seas,” according to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite being legally free, blacks experienced discrimination and looked to Africa to realize freedom. Enslaved Africans, known as Congo, who the British seized from other countries’ ships as part of the campaign to end the slave trade, joined Americans in founding Liberia. These two groups formed a group called Americo-Liberians, which dominates Liberia to this day.
From the start, indigenous people saw the settlers as colonizers since the settlers took land away from indigenous groups. Throughout much of the 19th century, both groups were at war. The Americo-Liberians ruled the interior in a form of internal colonialism, levying taxes and ruling with military might. As the report of the Truth and Reconciliation of Liberia states, “From its inception, the Liberian state … deliberately and systematically excluded the indigenous population, consigning them to subsistence living whilst exploiting them economically.”
Liberia has operated as a political and social duality almost since its inception. In the rural areas, indigenous people are ruled by local chiefs and attend schools organized by local secret societies. Americo-Liberians have controlled politics and society through the present day. For most of Liberia’s history, men also dominated politics: Women with property were only given the vote in 1947, and indigenous women were only included in the 1950s.
In April 1980, Samuel Doe, of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, orchestrated a coup against then-President William R. Tolbert. Doe allied with a minority ethnic group called the Mandingos and sought revenge against the Americo-Liberians. He employed Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, as the director of General Services Administration. Taylor diverted money into a Swiss bank account and later fled the country after being accused of embezzlement. He underwent military training in Libya, and returned to Liberia in 1989 to launch an offensive against Doe, who was killed the next year by a fellow militia leader. As head of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Taylor became a feared warlord in the region.
For more than 14 years, Liberia experienced a violent civil war that killed 250,000 people and displaced more than 1 million across the region, with violence erupting primarily from 1989 through 1996 and from 1999 through 2003. Thousands of Liberians also took refuge in other countries. Sexualized violence was a noted part of the conflict, as was the use of child soldiers. Liberia collapsed into a vicious civil war from 1989 to 1997. After protracted fighting, elections were held in 1997 and Charles Taylor was declared the winner with the blessing of the United States.
As leader of the NPFL, Taylor created a generation of young boys and men who were tied to him through violence. (The unofficial slogan of his election was: “You killed my ma, you killed my pa. I'll vote for you.”) Taylor continued his violence, and the war thus also continued, with new factions involved, until 2003.
With the breakdown of infrastructure and social norms, Liberia experienced a dramatic increase in sexualized violence. Before the war, legal, health, and security services for survivors of sexualized violence were practically nonexistent outside of the capital, Monrovia, and survivors had little redress to the formal system. During the war, women were abducted, gang-raped, forced into “survival sex” (i.e., sex for money or favors, which may be defined as rape by the International Criminal Court), or turned into sex slaves, according to the UN’s IRIN news service.
In 2003, with various armed factions battling for control of Liberia, civilians began to engage in forcing peace. In particular, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized a peaceful demonstration for months in Monrovia to protest war. They also met with Taylor to ask him to go to peace talks in Ghana.
As depicted in the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) forced warlords and Taylor to make a peace agreement, which brought an end to the war. The August 18, 2003, Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Accra, Ghana. The agreement divided Liberia’s government ministries and commissions between four groups, including Taylor’s government, the rebel groups MODEL and LURD, and the representatives of civil society, who had become influential in securing peace. After an interim government, elections were held in 2005 and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president, making her the first elected woman president on the continent. In 2011, Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee.
Several years into postwar recovery, sexualized violence is still prevalent. The UN Mission in Liberia reports that “rape still remains the number one crime reported to the Liberian National Police, with most of the victims between the ages of 10 and 19.” Evidence suggests that rape continues to be the most frequently reported serious crime in Liberia. According to reports from the World Health Organization, interpersonal violence is also becoming more socially acceptable.
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To destroy communities. As reported by the Geneva Centre for the Control of Armed Forces in 2007, “[a]cts of sexual violence were committed mainly against women and girls and included rape—sometimes in front of family or community members.” Such sexualized violence not only tore apart the social fabric, but also rendered individuals vulnerable to predation: Militias forced young boys who had crossed social taboos to become child soldiers and forced women into sexual slavery as a way of rewarding soldiers.
For ethnic targeting. Rape was used as a form of ethnic targeting throughout the war. There are some 16 ethnic groups in Liberia. A 1998 report of a survey in Monrovia found that women and girls accused of belonging to a particular ethnic group or militia were at greater risk for physical and sexualized violence.
But ethnicity as such did not seem to have been a major cause of the war. The “often-multi-ethnic military factions receive far more blame for the violent conflicts than the major tribes backing them,” according to Peacebuildingdata.org. Leaders drew on different ethnic groups to mobilize forces, and in this context, the ethnicity of women justified sexualized violence. However, targeting women for rape is different from genocidal rape. Rape does not appear to have functioned as a form of ethnic cleansing as has been seen in Rwanda and Bosnia.
Patterns of Violence
- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report found that women and girls suffered in multiple direct and indirect ways during the war. “On account of their sex,” the report indicates, “women and girls experienced incredible acts of violence and torture. On account of their gender, women and girls were subjected to abduction, slavery, and forced labor.”
- A UN report describes how sexualized violence at the hands of all fighting forces occurred in both private and public spaces, often in front of community and family members. Rebels targeted women during sieges, flight, and looting missions. Survivors said rebels divided communities into those who would experience the abuse and those who would witness it. “On other occasions,” the report indicates, “the rebels would randomly select a community member, who under threat of death would then be forced to commit a violation against a fellow co-ethnic or family member.”
- A study by Shana Swiss, public health physician and director of Women’s Rights International, and others indicates that soldiers and fighters beat, tied up, strip-searched, detained, and raped women. The study finds, “Women who were accused of belonging to a particular ethnic group or fighting faction or who were forced to cook for a soldier or fighter were at increased risk for physical and sexual violence.”
- The Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, in its global overview of sexualized violence in conflict, notes that “rape, abduction for sexual slavery, forced marriage of women and girls to combatants, forced stripping, and insertion of foreign objects into victims’ cavities” were common during Liberia’s war.
The report finds that in addition to repeated rape, gang rape, and forced labor (including washing, cooking, and looting), abductees also served as mascots for combatant groups. Historically, some Liberian tribal armies used male children as mascots, advertising opportunities for social mobility through military training. During the most recent civil wars, however, fighters carried female children with them as they traveled between towns, sometimes leaving the girls for subsequent fighting groups.
- The TRC report describes testimonies of forced cannibalism, as “many women were targeted to eat the flesh of their husbands or children as an act of punishment.” Soldiers forced women to watch or assist in the murders of their husbands and subsequently consume parts of their husbands’ bodies. Some women also recounted soldiers coercing women into selling their husbands’ butchered body parts as food.
- A joint UNHCR and Save the Children report highlights humanitarian agencies’ sexual exploitation of children during conflict in three West African countries, including Liberia. Members of the UN Mission in Liberia and local and international NGOs often exchanged materials, employment, services, money, and aid for sexual favors from Liberians. Teenage girls comprised most of the victims. Poverty, insufficient food and supplies, and pressure from their social and family networks led to girls’ involvement in such acts. The report stresses the latter, mentioning that there is “evidence of parental collusion and even encouragement for girls to enter into exploitative relationships in order to bring in money.”
Researchers and organizations have cited transactional or “survival” sex as common to women’s experiences during Liberia’s civil wars. Anthropologist and Liberia scholar Mats Utas notes in Anthropological Quarterly that women had to “provide sexual favors just to pass checkpoints, thus severely restricting their ability to travel.” According to a 2011 UN report, some women intentionally engaged in sexual relations with combatants to acquire food and protection due to insecurity, minimal resources, and men’s restricted ability to work during the war. Some couples made this decision jointly, though marital tensions pervaded.
- Utas further describes women’s agency in Liberia’s “war economy.” He discusses how for both women and men, “participation in the rebel armies or other areas of the ‘war economy’ was an attempt to overcome, in their eyes, a profoundly marginal socioeconomic situation.” Joining the oppressor was not only an alternative to suffering or “victimcy”; it was also an opportunity for “social mobility.” Women who joined armed forces either as soldiers or soldiers’ girlfriends also knew that despite the risks tied to “girlfriending” with multiple men, it was critical to have an alternative “protector” in case the current one died in combat.
- Within internally displaced persons camps, women and girls faced greater risk of sexualized violence from family members, neighbors, and soldiers due to overcrowding and insufficient security, according to both the TRC report and an overview by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
There are numerous reports about wartime sexualized violence in Liberia. The most commonly cited statistic is that 75 percent of women were raped in the Liberian conflict. This figure, which is widely used by UN agencies, the International Rescue Committee, and other international organizations, comes from a World Health Organization survey, which was implemented jointly with the Ministry for Health and Social Welfare, ICRC, the Ministry of Gender and Development, and local NGOs. The study, which interviewed 412 women, required that the woman or girl be a survivor of sexual-gender based violence. Of the participants, 77 percent were survivors of rape and 64 percent were survivors of gang rape. The statistics here, however, cannot be generalized to the entire population of Liberia, and is thus an inaccurate estimate.
A 1998 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found that 15 percent of women reported rape, attempted rape, or sexual coercion (including “survival sex”). The study does not include the second civil war, however, as it surveyed 200 women in Monrovia during the first period of civil war. The survey stratification corresponded to three different groups of Liberian women: high school students, market women, and those not employed outside the home.
A survey published by the Journal of American Medical Association found that both men and women in Liberia reported experiencing sexualized violence at high rates, although ex-combatants of either sex faced a much higher risk than non-combatants of either sex. Of the female ex-combatants, who composed 11 percent of the sample, 42 percent said they had experienced sexualized violence at some point. This is in comparison to female non-ex-combatants who experienced sexualized violence 9 percent of the time. Of the male ex-combatant respondents, who composed 22 percent of the respondents, 33 percent reported experiencing sexualized violence, compared to 7 percent of male non-combatants. The study conducted and analyzed large samples after both wars.
In a 2009 report, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission collected, coded, and analyzed more than 17,000 victim and witness statements containing information on more than 90,000 victims and over 160,000 separate acts of violence. This was a non-random convenience sample and also cannot be generalized to the entire country. The data suggest that of the violence experienced during the war, sexualized violence only accounted for 8 percent of reported violations against women. It was the third most likely type of violence reported by women after forced displacement and killing. Bong County residents have reported more wartime violations (22,175, or 14 percent) and more victims (12,546, or 13 percent) than any county beyond Montserrado County (which includes Liberia’s capital, Monrovia).
A 2008 Demographic and Health Survey for Liberia (conducted by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services) found that 18 percent of Liberian women have experienced some form of sexualized violence in their lifetime. Such violence included “being physically forced to have sexual intercourse or perform any other acts against one’s will.” For the majority of those who reported sexualized violence, the victims identified the perpetrators as a current or former partner. Eight percent reported that the perpetrators were soldiers or police. The survey also found that 33 percent of women who were married or cohabiting reported having experienced at least one incident of violence at the hands of their husband or partner.
Another recent survey of 1,666 Liberian men revealed that 33 percent of male combatants (118 of 367 combatant respondents) experienced sexualized violence, while 17 percent (57 of 360 combatant respondents) were forced to become sexual servants.
These studies demonstrate that the rate of sexualized violence during and after the war is inconclusive. While none of the surveys are conclusive on the real rate of rape prevalence during the war, the most accurate surveys are the studies that are representative. Thus, the most accurate figure is more likely to come from the 2008 Demographic Health Survey of Liberia or the two Journal of American Medical Association statistics.
Using those data, it would appear that at least 18 percent of women have experienced sexualized violence in their lifetime, and in wartime both men and women combatants experienced high levels of sexualized violence. It should also be noted that the Women and Children Protection Unit of the Liberian National Police has reported that it receives reports of at least one case of child rape per week.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
With so many ethnic groups in Liberia, it is difficult to make broad characterizations of ideas about gender. Some societies have strong female roles, including female chiefs and other opportunities for female leadership in women's secret societies. And in Monrovia, women have more access to education and job opportunities than they do in rural areas. However, in general, women do not enjoy equal rights, and patriarchy is firmly in place in many areas of society, according to Equal Power, Lasting Peace, a project on women and conflict resolution.
Polygamy is still practiced in different communities. In contemporary Liberia, many men have girlfriends. Women tend to be responsible for looking after any children that result from such relationships. Until recently, women also could not inherit property. The concept of marital rape is still not formally acknowledged, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index, which was launched by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2009 to promote policies that would drive economic and social change.
The great number of displaced people created by the war has exacerbated existing gender inequalities and made girls particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, according to the UN’s IRIN news service. Despite much education on the issue of rape, many families still feel that if a woman in their nuclear or extended family is raped, it brings shame and dishonor to the family as a whole. Thus rapes are underreported and the practice of settling with the rapist instead of taking him to court is still widespread.
Witness testimonies to the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both in the diaspora and in Liberia, gave harrowing accounts of sexualized violence. Rape as a form of torture and often done in concert with other extreme abuses was common in the civil war.
A woman told the commission:
In 2003, I was living in Caldwell with my husband. On June 1, Taylor’s boys (NPFL) took over. … Rebels wanted our car and took it. They accused me of lying about my husband being Grebo. They stabbed me in the breast and dragged my husband outside and began to cut him. They forced me to carry his private parts and then they cut off his arms. They caught me and four of them raped me. I was three months pregnant and am still having pain from the rapes.
The report found that young girls also experienced rape at the hands of militias:
I was 8 years old when the war came in July 1990. My mother, brother, and sister were in Grand Gedeh visiting a friend. Rebels knocked on the door and my father went out and was killed. A rebel boy came into the house and raped me. I have had problems ever since.
Militias used rape to violate social taboos, which included violating older woman, or raping women in front of family members, the report found:
In March 1990 … [an NPFL rebel] came to my house and said that I should bring the gold I have. I told him please, sir, I don’t have any more gold. When I told him this, he said I should take off my clothes so his boys can have sex with me. As old as I was, his boys (three of them) had sex with me. My husband could not stand it and so he rushed to them and that’s how he was shot dead.
The report showed that pregnant women were also targeted for torture:
The woman was at the end of her pregnancy when a group of rebels came to her house and demanded their car. The woman’s husband told the rebels that they could not have the car because the woman was about to go into labor any time now and he needed it to take her to the hospital to deliver her baby. The rebels then took the woman, cut her open from the breast bone down to her pelvic bone while she was still alive, bet on the sex of the baby, and then cut the baby out of her uterus. The rebels then proceeded to cut the baby into three pieces and discarded the remains to the side. They then shot her and her husband to death.
Both the commission and Save the Children/UNHCR reports highlight the health effects of sexualized violence during Liberia’s civil wars, which include sexually transmitted infections, fistulae, and unwanted pregnancies, particularly among teenagers.
Sexualized violence and impregnation by combatants led to social isolation and stigmatization after the war, according to TRC accounts. Destruction of social networks, loss of livelihoods, and men’s undermined abilities to protect and provide for their families contributed to post-war divorce and partner violence. According to a UN report, as household economic responsibilities shifted from men to women during the war (e.g., through survival sex), men “lost their social status as husbands, fathers, protectors, and providers.” This powerlessness and shame, combined with economic inopportunity, exacerbated existing rates of partner violence.
According to the 2007 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey, 47 percent of women aged 15-49 years reported experiencing a form of spousal violence in the previous year (physical: 33 percent; sexual: 10 percent; emotional: 34 percent). Women indicated lack of awareness or skepticism of the concept of marital rape, possibly leading to underreporting of spousal sexualized violence.
Liberia still encounters challenges, despite its postwar status. One such challenge lies in addressing the widespread issue of sexualized violence. Many Liberians have limited access to the formal legal system, and reforms still need to be made to the customary legal system, in which financial compensation tends to be given to the family of the survivor rather than the survivor him or herself.
From the beginning of her presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrated a personal interest in addressing sexualized violence. Under her presidency, postwar Liberia has prioritized efforts to address sexualized violence. The government has placed strategic emphasis on improving protection, prevention, and rehabilitation mechanisms for survivors. In many speeches, including her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Johnson Sirleaf has highlighted the need to confront the issue of sexualized violence in Liberia and all over the world.
The Liberian government has developed one of the first National Action Plans to End Gender-Based Violence under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Introduced in 2000, the resolution formally acknowledges the impact of war on women and girls and encourages the involvement of women in peace-building processes. In 2006, the Liberian Ministries of Gender and Justice launched the National Gender-Based Violence Plan of Action, which is constructed on four pillars: protection of women and children from sexualized and gender-based violence; prevention of sexualized and gender-based violence; promotion of women’s human rights; and participation of women in peace processes.
Liberia has also enacted two major laws aimed at enhancing protection against sexualized violence. The first is a penal law that was amended in 2005 to expand the definition of rape to include gang rape, rape of minors, and rape by weapons. Additionally, the provisions of the amendment are couched in gender-neutral terms, thereby negating the notion that rape is an offense only committed by men against women. The second reform occurred in 2008, when Liberia amended its judicial law to establish a separate court with exclusive jurisdiction over sexual offenses. Criminal Court E commenced operations in February 2009. Moreover, a domestic violence law is currently under consideration by legislators.
The Liberian National Police (LNP) has established the Women and Children Protection Sections in more than 21 locations in Liberia to improve the protection of women and children, particularly against sexualized violence. Liberia has developed an all-female civil police unit with special commitment to cases of sexualized violence.
But there remains a gap in access to legal remedy. According to reports, 40 percent of survivors accessed the LNP, but only 23 percent accessed the courts. This suggests a fairly significant gap between a woman’s initial reporting of an instance of sexualized violence and that case being carried to the courts. There are several obstacles that prevent access, such as the costs and authority of traditional leaders to mediate disputes.
An Amnesty International report in 2011 found that other barriers exist for prosecution, including low rate of prosecution of rape cases; excessive pretrial prison time for accused perpetrators; shortage of social workers in health facilities to support survivors of gender-based violence; fast turnover of staff trained in clinical management of rape; high number of rape cases being dismissed; magistrates trying rape cases not under their jurisdiction; poor selection of jurors; delays in evidence collection and investigation; poor linkages in the justice delivery system; and lack of transportation to convey prisoners to prison.
(Pamela Scully, Sabrina Karim, Erin Bernstein/Published September 3, 2013)
EDITOR’S NOTE: The text in the “Numbers” section has been corrected to reflect that the Journal of American Medical Association published the survey—and did not conduct it, as previously stated.