President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has called upon Liberia's female lawyers, gender advocates and civil society to "think out of the box" and come up with suggestions on how to address the growing crime of rape of young girls in the country.
According to an Executive Mansion release, President Sirleaf convened a roundtable meeting on Thursday, January 9, with 14 women - representing the Ministry of Gender and Development, the Ministry of Justice, the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia (AFELL), and civil society represented by the Women NGOs Secretariat (WONGOSOL) - to discuss the alarming trend in the rape of under-age girls, and challenged them to come up with ideas on how to address this serious societal crime.
In thanking the participants for responding to her request, the President drew attention to the regular Security Report she receives from the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, a segment of which deals with rape. According to the report, during the period from November 12, 2013, to January 7, 2014, there were 119 cases of rape reported, compared to 83 previously: 53 cases in Monrovia and its environs; and 66 outside Monrovia. The victims included girls as young as four years old. A total of 61 suspects were arrested.
The President noted that measures against the crime included the Rape Law, with rape as an unbailable crime; and the just completed Code of Conduct for teachers regarding the crime of rape in the schools. She applauded the Ministry of Gender and Development for all of its efforts, but added: "We've all still got to think out of the box, and that's why we called you here, to ask for some of your ideas. We have to find a way to deal with this problem. The breakdown in the family unit, and the fact that heads of households today are themselves almost children, makes the problem even more difficult to solve. But we have to find a way." So many kids' lives and future have been taken from them because of this crime, the President said, lamenting that the rate is increasing.
"We want AFELL to be more active in this," President Sirleaf said, and applauded the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) for going to court religiously every time there's a rape case, their presence showing strong concern.
During the hour-long discussion, many concrete suggestions were put forth. They included: working more with men, including those already behind bars, to change their mental attitude, their behavior and their thinking about who women are; research, in the various communities, into why men rape; and naming and shaming rapists by putting them in prison garb and making them clean the streets.
Other proposals included: looking at the Rape Law again to make revisions to close loopholes, such as provisions pertaining to the age of the perpetrator, and those who would compromise a case; training more lawyers in prosecuting sexual violence; advocacy and training for judges and the police; engaging police commanders to understand their critical role in protecting children who are molested, and the police against tampering with the evidence; preventive measures, such as sensitization competitions, and encouraging religious institutions to set aside a particular day to speak on the topic of rape; and the need to look at the jury system for prosecution, of where jurors stay, how they interact with the public, and that there should be non-jury trials in cases of the rape of children.
Still other ideas proposed were: that the women of Liberia should speak with one voice on the urgent need to stop the crime of rape; advocacy on a daily basis, with the Gender Ministry having its own radio station where, throughout the day, people would address the issue of rape; greater awareness, through regular appearances on radio talk shows, telling the people about rape and not to compromise such cases; in addition to radio, to be more interpersonal by reaching out to the various communities, through the churches/mosques and other religious institutions; working with the Education Ministry to make its curriculum sex education friendly; and ensuring that the Censor Board, supervised by the Information Ministry, carries out its responsibility regarding the movies being shown on television and in video clubs.
Summarizing some of the points, President Sirleaf said: (1) AFELL is asked to take a look at the Rape Law, to see if it can be revised, and that the Law Reform Commission would be asked to work with them, and the Ministry of Justice to provide whatever help AFELL needs; (2) the Inter-Faith Council would be contacted to present the proposal that one Sunday be set aside when all of the churches would focus on rape and preach about it; (3) the Gender Ministry should buy time on Women Democracy Radio, and focus, one or two days a week, on the topic of rape, with the programs being reproduced for distribution to Community Radio Stations throughout the country; (4) a sensitization program, with the Gender Ministry working with those represented at the meeting to come up with proposals to enhance the whole process; (5) the President would convene a meeting of the Censor Board on the content of shows being aired on television and in video clubs; (6) she would ask the Ministry of Education to make the Code of Conduct for Teachers available so that it can be publicized; and (7) the Ministry of Justice would be requested to ensure that for every court term, there is a rape case on the docket of every county.
Participants in the meeting were: Mrs. Julia Duncan-Cassell, Minister of Gender & Development (MOGD); Ms. Annette M. Kiawu, Deputy Minister, MOGD; Mrs. Meima Sirleaf-Kanneh, Assistant Minister, MOGD; Ms. Kula Fofana, MOGD; Cllr. Wheatonia Dixon Barnes, Deputy Minister for Administration, Ministry of Justice ; Cllr. H. Deddeh J. Wilson, Acting Chief Prosecutor, SGBV/MOJ; Atty. Joyce E.S. Tarpeh, Ministry of Justice Prosecutor; Cllr. Abla Gadegbeku Williams, LRRRC/AFELL; Cllr. Felicia V. Coleman, AFELL/SGBVCU); Cllr. Zeor Daylue Bernard, AFELL; Cllr. Lois Brutus, AFELL; Cllr. Deweh Gray, AFELL; Atty. Esther Seton Cee, AFELL; and Ms. Marpue M. Speare, Women NGO Secretariat (WONGOSOL).